Afghanistan National Army (ANA) commandos demonstrate their skills on Aug. 5 at a Commando Unit Base in Rish Khor district on the outskirts of Kabul. (Shah Marai / Getty Images)
RISH KHOR, AFGHANISTAN — If Afghanistan is to avoid the chaotic breakdown seen in Iraq, US-trained special forces undergoing instruction at a drill camp outside Kabul must play a key part in imposing security — and building public confidence.
The huge base, surrounded by barren hills, is the scene of an all-round education for commandos who have been hand-picked from the regular army to replace elite US units now withdrawing from Afghanistan.
On the curriculum is every aspect of planning and executing military operations: from urban warfare exercises and patrolling villages to shooting practice with M4 assault rifles and classroom lessons.
At “Camp Commando,” near the village of Rish Khor, a line of Humvees topped with machine guns is one sign that the force has been carefully modeled on the US Army Rangers.
As the NATO combat mission packs up after 13 years of fighting the Taliban, attention is focusing on the local security forces that will be responsible for battling nationwide instability.
“We have good planning, good equipment and good weapons, so we never think about when NATO is not a partner with us any more,” said Gen. Syed Abdul Karim, a bullish special forces commander, sitting in a leather office chair.
“Maybe we’ll have some problems, but we’ve already tested our soldiers and they have very high morale.
“Our role is to conduct operations everywhere we are facing risks of insurgents,” he said, reeling off a list of recent successes he claims in the provinces of Ghazni, Badakhshan, Wardak and elsewhere.
But, despite the confidence, serious concerns surround the 11,500-strong commando force — particularly over a lack of air support which severely limits their mobility, and in their reputation for thuggish tactics.
US Military Legacy
“The Afghan special forces are followers of the US Special Forces, who are seen as having their hands stained in blood from infamous night raids on homes,” said Atiqullah Amarkhil, an analyst and former army officer.
“They are supposed to be picked from the best, but there have been cases of warlords putting their fighters into the special forces, so it is also possible that their loyalties are not with the government.”
Amarkhil added that a shortage of helicopters severely restricted the commandos’ ability to deploy rapidly when the army and police need them.
“They completely lack the effective air support that the US special forces rely on, as well surveillance, intelligence gathering and medevac resources,” he said.
“The Afghan air force is nascent and inadequate.”
Karim admits that the commando camp has no helicopter, but insists one will be delivered soon and that air support for the special forces is improving fast.
He avoids discussion of the commandos’ alleged bad reputation, instead stressing that all the men have been trained to respect civilians.
“We never use air power or firepower in the residential areas where civilians live,” he said. “We look for targets which are outside residential areas.
“During the last six months we didn’t have any civilian casualties, so it shows that we have more experience in the latest operations.”
All NATO combat troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, though some US special forces are set to stay on to conduct discreet strikes against al-Qaida remnants.
For locals living near the camp, the presence of commandos is a welcome guarantee of security.
“We cooperate well with them,” said carpenter Abdul Bashir, 35. “There is no problem with house searches, and it is always good to see them out on patrol.”
The years ahead may prove tough for the commandos, but the young men training in the summer heat are upbeat and certain that they are learning skills to enable them to keep Afghanistan from civil war.
“There is a difference between the special operations that we do and what the police and army can,” said Fazel Rahman, a 22-year-old sergeant.
“Whatever province we went to, we came out successfully.
“It will be good if the foreigners continue their presence, but if they leave it will not affect our will.”