The future of Afghanistan may depend on Afghan Commandos

Can Afghanistan's battle-hardened Commandos save the country?
Marty Skovlund Jr. Avatar
Afghan Commando Afghanistan Camp Morehead
An Afghan Commando trains on a range just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Marty Skovlund Jr./Task & Purpose.)

Their eyes were painted in the eerie green glow of the night vision devices suspended in front of their faces — their breath visibly faded into the cold night air with each exhalation. They moved nimbly, silently over rocks and through dry river beds. The men in the column were in peak condition; they needed to be, as their every step was burdened by ammunition, grenades, explosives, and protective gear.

Although these American service members had been specially selected for this unit based on their above-average intelligence and physical fitness, what actually set them apart was their capacity for violence. That violence most often came in what has become popularly known as the controversial “night raid.” It’s a tactic used to great effect when chasing high-value targets, but some have charged that such operations run the risk of creating more enemies than they take off the battlefield.

It was seven years ago, at the height of the war in Afghanistan, when the members of this unnamed strike force made their way to a small village in Khost. It’s unlikely they were concerned about the strategic or political implications of their work during the long infil; they had a target, a location, and orders to capture — or kill, if necessary.

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As the operators crossed over one final ridgeline, a small cluster of buildings became clear in their green-tinted field of view. Infrared lasers danced on the multiple entry points, and a single house was illuminated by an infrared light coming from somewhere high in the sky above, invisible to its inhabitants. Orders were quietly given over the radio, and each element of the long column broke away to make their final approach.

The night air would have been perfectly silent were it not for the sound of a dog barking in the distance.

Moments later, at approximately 2 a.m. local time, the squad responsible for “primary assault” that night made the radio call indicating they were in position and ready to breach the target building. A soldier carrying a small battering ram was positioned to the side of the door. After a short countdown over the radio, the soldier aggressively swung the ram into the door, popping it open.

Primary assault immediately flowed in — slow is smooth, smooth is fast, their mantra. Within seconds, “military-aged males” were being yanked out of bed and flex-cuffed, while women and children were hastily searched and then shepherded into a single room. One of those children was Kazem Ahmad, only 15 years old at the time and understandably very frightened.

Inside the Afghan Commando qualification course

American special operations forces have conducted thousands of night raids identical to the one experienced by young Ahmad over the years. Under then-Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Joint Special Operations Command had taken the craft of a time-sensitive, high-value target raid and applied it on an industrial scale in Iraq. At one point, a platoon-sized element could expect to find, fix, and finish more than 100 targets within a 90-day period. Once the United States started to wind down operations in Iraq, that same model was applied in Afghanistan.

The United States came to an agreement with then-President Hamid Karzai to stop night raids in 2013, but that arrangement was largely ignored. However, Americans have predominantly been relegated to accompanying or enabling the Afghan military in its operations since then — namely the regionally famous Commandos.

Sgt. Mohamed Amin conducts training at the Camp Commando shoot house with Commando trainees. (Marty Skovlund Jr./Task & Purpose).

Sgt. Mohamed Amin is the epitome of what one would expect a Commando — Afghan or otherwise — to be. A consummate professional with no lack of swagger, he rocks a pair of Oakley sunglasses everywhere he goes, along with a too-tight uniform that always has the collar popped, and a maroon beret expertly shaved and carefully adjusted on his head. The 25-year-old Kabul native has fought all over Afghanistan in his nine years of military service — many of them assigned to the 3rd Special Operations Kandak, or battalion, in Kandahar province.

Now he is tasked with training the next generation of Afghan special operators, which means being equal parts standard bearer and mentor. On the day of my visit in November 2017, he was in charge of the shoot house, an empty structure used for training to enter and clear a building — an advanced task to comprehend, much less competently execute. At the conclusion of one exercise, Amin confidently corrected his Commando trainees, reminding one soldier to keep his elbows tight to the body, before scolding another for exposing the tip of his barrel in front of an open door.

The Commando qualification course is a 14-week assessment, selection, and training course that aims to produce Commandos capable of conducting advanced individual tasks as well as platoon and company-level Commando missions. This foundations course delivers, at minimum, a vetted (notably, some still slip through the cracks) and trained Commando to the combatant commanders that is ready for immediate use on combat missions.

Amin and his cadre of fellow instructors outside Kabul have their work cut out for them. An increasingly emboldened Taliban has stepped up its attacks on civilians — following the Jan. 20 assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, there was a massive bombing on Saturday in which an ambulance packed with explosives detonated, killing more than 100 people. Meanwhile, the team at the Camp Commando School of Excellence has been given the arduous task of executing President Ashraf Ghani’s order to double the Commando force in four years, without sacrificing quality. The near-term goal is to have 4,000 additional troops ready in time for this year’s spring offensive. In order to achieve this, three Commando courses will be running concurrently by the end of January, with a total of 2,500 soldiers in training at once. One way the Afghan Commandos plan to hit those numbers involves taking an entire mobile-strike kandak out of the conventional Afghan army and putting them through Commando training.

Prospective Commandos in the qualification course practice detainee tactics in the Camp Commando shoot house. (Marty Skovlund Jr./Task & Purpose).

In modern-day America, this plan would seem to violate two of the five special operations forces truths that the U.S. military subscribes to when it comes to the formation of elite units: Quality is better than quantity, and special operations forces cannot be mass-produced.

But the Afghan Commandos are following a precedent established by American forces in 1944, when the U.S. Army established the 5332nd Brigade, also known as the MARS Task Force, a long-range penetration unit and predecessor to the modern U.S. Army Special Forces and 75th Ranger Regiment. One of the task force’s three regiments — the 124th Cavalry Regiment — was a repurposed national guard unit from Texas. Their performance was exceptional, and they were instrumental in the defeat of the Japanese in the China-Burma-India theater.

Would-be Afghan Commandos undergo considerable training, above and beyond what the average Afghan army infantryman receives. The first two weeks consist of an initial assessment, vetting, and physical tests to make sure the prospects can meet the demands of the course. The third week is land navigation training; the fourth is spent learning individual and advanced marksmanship, and the following two weeks are focused on small-unit tactics and heavy-weapons familiarization.

Weeks 7–13 include lessons in squad, platoon, and company-level tactics; patrolling, air assault, and vehicle operations; standard infantry battle drills; and eventually blank and live-fire exercises. Finally, in week 14, there is a culmination exercise and graduation. Graduates of the Commando qualification course don their distinctive maroon berets and either go on to further specialty training (sniper, medical, mortars, explosive breaching, etc.) or join an active-duty special operations kandak in combat.

An experienced Afghan Commando observes training on a flat range at Camp Commando. (Marty Skovlund Jr./Task & Purpose).

The course boasts a 90% pass rate, an alarmingly high figure suggesting that the course may be somewhat less rigorous than the typical special operations assessment and selection process in the U.S. and other nations.

Indeed, a more realistic comparison might be to the U.S. Marine Corps than to a traditional U.S. Special Operations Command fighting unit. The Commandos are assigned to one of the Commando kandaks, which are regionally aligned with the six Afghan army corps, similar to how Ranger companies regionally aligned themselves with conventional infantry divisions in the Vietnam War. Unlike the Ranger companies of Vietnam, the Commandos are most often used in a conventional light-infantry role, acting as shock troops that can be counted on for their effectiveness in battle because of high motivation, good leadership, better equipment, and a higher level of training.

Of course, there are special operations, and then there are special operations. The Ktah Khas, an elite unit that, according to NATO Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan, is responsible for and capable of “conducting platoon and company level intelligence-driven counterterrorism raids, particularly against high-value individuals, and vehicle interdictions utilizing both ground and air mobility platforms.” This sounds like it is more in line with the American military’s 75th Ranger Regiment, which just so happens to be the unit advising them. Notably, the Ktah Khas — which recently became the 1st Special Operations Kandak (National Mission Brigade) — has a 13-week selection and just a 12% pass rate. It is the only national-level asset capable of deploying anywhere in Afghanistan in response to a crisis or Afghan security priority.

All prospective Commandos are volunteers; most of them are in an age group that has grown up with an American military presence in their country. Why do they, unlike some of their peers, choose military service rather than joining the Taliban? Why do they have a 93% retention rate, in such stark contrast to the conventional army? Amin chalks it up to a sense of duty. “We are needed,” he explained in an interview with Task & Purpose. “It’s my responsibility to cover for my country, to cover for my people.” Notably, Amin and most of the soldiers in training I spoke to had never had their house raided in the middle of the night.

On the receiving end of an American night raid in Afghanistan

Kazem Ahmad watched as the American Commandos — no Afghan soldiers were there as far as he could tell — tore through his house, searching every cabinet and lifting every rug in the phase of a raid known as “sensitive site exploitation.” In special operations targeting methodology, after you find, fix, and finish a target, you must then exploit it.

It’s a highly intrusive process for a home’s inhabitants. A house is not carefully searched and put back together afterward; it’s ripped apart in a frenzy to collect as much intelligence in as short of a time period as possible. Which is all well and good if you’re talking about a house full of terrorists.

That wasn’t the case for Ahmad and his family. After the search was over, and faces were checked against photographs associated with high-value targets the operators carried on them, the ground force commander made the call to move on to the next building. This is how a “block party” is started: A strike force launches on what is deemed to be actionable intelligence, and they hit the house or compound thought to hold the target. Sometimes they don’t find him. Maybe he left while the strike force was en route, maybe the operators hit the wrong building. In some cases, he was never there to begin with. Either way, the strike force will usually start clearing every building in the vicinity.

Every compound, every house, every room is entered, cleared, and exploited for intelligence. It’s a risky tactic; since the element of surprise has been lost, and the target may be able to organize an ambush. And while you may or may not find your target, you’re guaranteed to terrify any innocent inhabitants in the area and run the risk of inciting further violence.

For Ahmad’s village, the block party didn’t end until dawn. It was just after the sun peeked over the horizon when the assault force finally found their intended target. The operators, no doubt exhausted from the night’s activities, called for exfil and then moved to an open field right in the village.

Before long, the Chinook helicopter appeared in the distance, the distinct sound of its twin rotors beating the thin air. It violently dropped from the sky, flared just above the ground, and then gently touched down. The ramp lowered, and the strike force ran onto the bird, the target, and one additional detainee in tow.

For Ahmad and his neighbors in the village, their up-close-and-personal experience on the receiving end of the American military might have finally come to a close.

The Afghan Commandos are led by experienced leaders now

Seven years later, Afghans are conducting a majority of the night raids. On Jan. 3, Commandos from 8th Special Operations Kandak discovered four ISIS-K homemade explosive labs in Nangarhar province’s highly disputed Achin district. The four labs contained 72 completed IEDs, 64 mines, and 25 kilograms of explosive material. It’s small victories like this that have motivated many of the Commandos I spoke with in the face of multiple extremist organizations and mounting casualties.

The Taliban “don’t have any other choice,” Command Sgt. Maj. Said Jalal Sadat told me in a recent interview at Afghan National Army Special Operations Command headquarters. A barrel-chested Commando who has been serving Afghanistan for 15 years, Sadat is the senior enlisted soldier for the entire command and does not mince words when it comes to the enemy. “Either they need to put their weapons down and surrender… Or the Commando will destroy them.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Said Jalal Sadat in his office at ANASOC headquarters, just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Marty Skovlund Jr./Task & Purpose).

He speaks from experience. Sadat keeps mementos of his career on vivid display in his office: The walls are covered in flags, plaques, and shadow boxes filled with swords and medals — many of them gifts from American Special Forces units he served with. Despite being frustrated by the Taliban’s resiliency, he is still confident in the progress his soldiers have made thus far, stating, “The will and power of the enemy has been decreased.”

Sadat represents a new generation of Afghan military leadership. They tend to be younger and less corrupt than the those they’re replacing, and they’ve earned the respect of their men by fighting side by side with them. Sadat has been a Commando since 2008 and has seen combat in at least 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. As he and his peers move up through the ranks and spread out through the Afghan army, they have the potential to raise the caliber of the entire military.

In an interview with Task & Purpose, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch said that the Commandos “provide the example for the rest of the corps,” adding that “they are the model of competence and professionalism, consistently beating the Taliban on the battlefield.” According to a recently released Department of Defense report, three of the five new corps commanders come from a special operations background and have already improved the culture within their units.

This is the same concept Army Gen. Creighton Abrams used to rebuild the U.S. military after the Vietnam War. In the mid-1970s, he established the 1st and 2nd Ranger battalions, with the intent to set the standard for the entire Army. Gen. John Wickham Jr. went a step further, saying, “The Ranger Regiment will draw its members from the entire Army — after service in the regiment — return these men to the line units of the army with the Ranger philosophy and standards.” The proof of concept is there, but it remains to be seen if the Commandos can have the same effect.

The DoD report also noted that between June 1, 2017, and Nov. 24, 2017, Afghan Commandos executed 2,628 operations, of which 453 were conducted by purely Afghan units. This is progress but still indicates a large majority of operations rely on NATO support.

The DoD report goes on to state that Afghan National Army Special Operations Command’s most notable internal obstacle is the misuse and overuse of its forces. “The MoD and ANA corps headquarters often request more Commandos than are available,” the report notes, “causing ANASOC to commit forces designated for a rest and recovery cycle.” Meanwhile, the Afghan special operations units are conducting between 70 and 80% of all offensive operations — a large burden to shoulder and one that is familiar to American special operations forces. One U.S. Special Forces noncommissioned officer that I spoke to said that conventional Afghan army commanders are even using Commandos as a semi-permanent stay-behind occupation force after their battlefield victories.

Military units around the world have issues they address to improve the organization, but the difference for Afghan special operations units is that they have to work through these obstacles while still responding to the near-constant crisis situations that arise in the country. On Jan. 20, at least six Haqqani network gunmen attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing 40 — four of whom were American. Afghanistan’s premier special operations police unit— CRU 222 — responded to and engaged in what would be a 12-hour firefight with the gunmen. The Commandos cleared all six floors of the hotel room by room and were able to rescue 153 of the hotel’s occupants while killing all six of the enemy fighters.

A new Afghan Commando comes full circle

On Dec. 6, 2017, the 1,056 Afghan soldiers that I followed during my embed in Afghanistan graduated from the 21st Commando qualification course at Camp Commando. Among them was a young man, skinny with a light beard and thick brows. Seven years after his own family’s home was raided by U.S. special operations forces, 22-year-old Pvt. Kazem Ahmad proudly donned the distinctive maroon beret of the Commandos.

He still vividly remembers the night the Americans came to his village. “I was just 15,” he said. “I got afraid of what was going on.”

Pvt. Kazem Ahmad patiently waits for his platoon’s turn to conduct training on a range at Camp Commando. (Marty Skovlund Jr./Task & Purpose).

Despite the long night, the operators made a positive impression on him. “Nobody got hurt, nobody got injured,” Ahmad recalled. “As far as I know, the target is still in Bagram prison.” Controversial or not, night raids are brutally effective at taking high-value targets off the battlefield. And over the years, the U.S. military started incorporating standard procedures aimed at being less disruptive during these missions. Ahmad said that everything was fine by the time the operators left that night. “They told us ‘If is lost or damaged, let us know and we will compensate,’” Ahmad said.

Ahmad has come full circle; once on the receiving end of a nighttime raid, he went on to serve three years in the conventional Afghan army, before volunteering to serve as a Commando. Now he will be the one going out to hit targets in the middle of the night. He’s also engaged to be married. “Of course, we will have kids,” he told me, with a sheepish smile. I asked him if he was afraid of getting hurt or dying. “Those bad guys brought too much destruction in the country, too much widows, too much orphans…” he said. “Whenever I get to the fight, I never feel about my own body, or what will happen to me — get hurt or die.”

Ahmad and his fellow Commandos are the future of Afghanistan. If they fail, their country fails. If they succeed on the battlefield, stability stands a chance. With the Afghan army largely ineffective, the president is relying on the Commandos almost exclusively to beat the Taliban, ISIS-K, and the slew of other extremist organizations. It’s no small task, but the men I met are anxious to prove that they are up to the challenge.

“Since I have this feeling about my people,” Ahmad told me confidently. “I’m not afraid of nothing.”

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