Afghanistan to boost troops in its elite com­mando units

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY THOMAS GIB­BONS-NEFF thomas.gib­bons­neff@wash­post.com

camp more­head, afghanistan — The Afghan mil­i­tary will be­gin ex­pand­ing its elite com­mando units in the com­ing weeks, Afghan of­fi­cials and mil­i­tary of­fi­cers said, in a bid to cap­i­tal­ize on a force that has been one of the few suc­cess sto­ries in the nearly 16-year-old war.

Start­ing in Septem­ber, the train­ing academy here — an old Rus­sian para­trooper base tucked in a val­ley south of Kabul — will add an 800-man, 14-week-long com­mando course atop its cur­rent cur­ricu­lum. Afghan of­fi­cials are op­ti­mistic that in the com­ing years the 12,000-strong force could al­most dou­ble to 22,000 troops.

As the num­ber of com­man­dos grows, the Min­istry of In­te­rior’s elite po­lice unit and the Afghan Air Force’s Spe­cial Mis­sion Wing also will ex­pand, to 9,000 and 1,000 troops, re­spec­tively.

The Afghan mil­i­tary’s de­ci­sion to in­vest in its com­mando forces comes with strong U.S. back­ing and is a key com­po­nent of Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani’s re­cent mil­i­tary re­form plan.

The com­man­dos, with their track record of re­li­a­bil­ity, have be­come a fa­vorite of U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials. They see the elite force as key to push­ing back the Tal­iban mil­i­tants who have taken over broad swaths of the coun­try since NATO forces ended their com­bat mis­sion in 2014.

A re­cent re­port from the Pen­tagon’s Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanistan said the com­man­dos and other spe­cial units were re­spon­si­ble for 80 per­cent of all Afghan of­fen­sive oper­a­tions as of early 2017, but warned that they have been overused.

The com­man­dos “are very tired,” said Maj. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the chief spokesman for the Afghan Min­istry of De­fense. “By rais­ing the num­ber of com­man­dos, we will be able to give them a breath.”

Col. Zabi­hul­lah, an oper­a­tions of­fi­cer for the Afghan Spe­cial Oper­a­tions com­mand, who chose not to share his last name for se­cu­rity rea­sons, told a small group of re­porters that his forces have taken steps to en­sure they weren’t be­ing mis­used, in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ing bet­ter re­la­tions with reg­u­lar units and en­sur­ing re­quests for the com­man­dos are chan­neled through the Min­istry of De­fense. It is un­clear, how­ever, how ef­fec­tive those mea­sures will be if the Tal­iban con­tin­ues to gain ground.

The Afghan com­man­dos were ini­tially de­signed to act as a raid force against Tal­iban com­man­ders and other crit­i­cal tar­gets, but they have slowly turned into the Afghan mil­i­tary’s premier shock troops.

They are fre­quently tasked to clear ar­eas of Tal­iban in­sur­gents, of­ten with the help of U.S. air sup­port and Western Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces, so that reg­u­lar Afghan Army units can flow in be­hind them.

Zabi­hul­lah in­di­cated that it will take roughly four years for the com­man­dos to nearly dou­ble their size, and that with more num­bers the troops will be able to cover more of the coun­try. Cur­rently, there are about a dozen Afghan com­mando bat­tal­ions spread across Afghanistan.

Each bat­tal­ion is re­spon­si­ble for cover­ing a spe­cific geo­graphic area.

Crit­ics of the plan say that by fo­cus­ing ef­forts on grow­ing the Afghan Spe­cial Oper­a­tions troops, it ig­nores the roughly 150,000 reg­u­lar Afghan sol­diers that should be able to do many of the same tasks fre­quently asked of the com­man­dos.

Rapidly grow­ing the elite forces could also di­lute the com­mando units to a point where they are in­dis­tin­guish­able from reg­u­lar units, suf­fer­ing the same is­sues with dis­ci­pline and morale while in­creas­ing the threat of in­sider at­tacks.

In June, a com­mando launched mul­ti­ple rock­ets at a group of Army Green Berets, wound­ing four. A week be­fore that at­tack, an­other com­mando opened fire on a group of Amer­i­can sol­diers, killing three.

The surge in com­man­dos also means more Afghan train­ers, of­fi­cers and non­com­mis­sioned sol­diers will be needed to en­sure the new units re­main ef­fec­tive. U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions troops, act­ing as ad­vis­ers to the Afghan com­man­dos, said that they are con­fi­dent that the Afghans can do it with­out sac­ri­fic­ing their stan­dards or giv­ing up the strin­gent screen­ing process re­quired to en­ter the pro­gram.

Afghan Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Mir­wais Amiri, the high­est-rank­ing en­listed com­mando, who is in charge of the Com­mando School of Ex­cel­lence at Camp More­head, said roughly 20 per­cent of com­mando can­di­dates don’t make it through the course, pri­mar­ily be­cause of its phys­i­cal de­mands, and, in some cases, a lack of lit­er­acy.

Amiri added that many of the troops that pass the course re­place those that have been wounded or killed or have de­serted their units.

Al­though Afghan com­mando ca­su­alty num­bers are not reg­u­larly re­ported, the Afghan se­cu­rity forces suf­fered roughly 6,000 wounded and killed be­tween Jan­uary and May, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent In­spec­tor Gen­eral re­port.

TIM CRAIG/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Afghan elite sol­diers stand in for­ma­tion at the School of Ex­cel­lence at Camp More­head, Afghanistan.

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