KABUL, Afghanistan—No matter how many troops President Obama keeps in Afghanistan, or how fast they leave, it’ll be the Afghan forces that keep the country together—and its special operations troops that provide the teeth.
These troops have learned to perform the hard way: under fire by insurgents—and sometimes by their own government—for working alongside the Americans. Those combined stresses have ironically forced the elite forces to become more independent faster. Every time outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered them to stop working with NATO while charges of a drone misfire or alleged illegal raid were investigated, the troops were forced to tackle the Taliban and other insurgent groups on their own.
But those pauses in cooperation have also revealed the Afghan special operations forces’ shortfalls: not enough air power to reach remote targets, or intelligence resources to track those targets. Small wonder they are still more willing to tackle tougher missions with American commandos at their side.
For the Americans’ part, working closely with the Afghans gives them a chance to influence which targets are chosen in a battlefield still thick with a multiple choice of enemies—and when even a handful go along on a raid, they are able to guard against potential abuses, like the looting of suspects’ homes during raids or worse.
The Daily Beast got an exclusive look at how the U.S. works with Afghan special operators: both the promise of the elite forces the U.S. has built, and the peril of abandoning those forces before they have the logistical and bureaucratic structures in place to keep performing after the Americans depart.
"From the fighting standpoint, I feel confident," said Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, head of U.S. special operations in Afghanistan. But the managerial skills needed to run a 200,000-troop force are still lacking. "It's training, recruiting…uniforms…food… the sustainment piece which is hard for our army,” he said, echoing other U.S. military commanders’ assessment of the Afghan forces’ progress overall.
Afghan special operations forces will be key to President Barack Obama’s new, narrowed counterterrorism strategy of counterterrorism there. Obama announced Tuesday that he would keep 9,800 U.S. troops in the country through 2015, down from 32,000 in the country now, then halve and eventually withdraw the U.S. force in 2016.
Senior U.S. military officials said as many as a third of the remaining force could be U.S. special operators who would continue to work with Afghan forces, advising them and on occasion, raiding with them.
Obama’s plan requires a future Afghan president to sign a security agreement with the U.S. by this fall, as outgoing president Karzai has refused to sign one.
Both Afghan presidential candidates, former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, told The Daily Beast that they would sign such an agreement, and they both welcomed continued cooperation with U.S. forces—and even unilateral U.S operations like drone strikes—as long as Afghans are kept informed before such operations are carried out.
U.S. special operations commanders say that’s already standard operating procedure.
U.S. special operations forces have trained three key units roughly 13,000 troops strong: the elite Joint Operations Forces that focus on high-value terrorist targets; the Afghan Commandos—infantrymen who can quickly seize a village or break a Taliban assault, so the larger Afghan army forces can flood the zone behind them; and Afghan “Tan Berets,” who work in smaller units in villages, like their U.S. Green Beret counterparts.
Separate from the Afghan military forces are the Afghan local police—a lightly trained armed neighborhood watch intended to keep the Taliban out of remote villages.
When even a handful go along on a raid, they are able to guard against potential abuses, like the looting of suspects’ homes during raids or worse.
“In 2011, [we had] a lot of combat units with Afghans, hitting the enemy,” said U.S. special operations commander Miller. “Now, it’s them hitting the enemy, us advising.”
That advising role is key to keeping Afghans focused on common enemies, according to three other U.S. military officials in Washington and Afghanistan. They say Afghan forces sometimes focus their firepower on targets they see as a more immediate threat to them and their government like a local Taliban ringleader that is planting roadside bombs, rather than an al Qaeda or Haqqani suspect with aspirations of attacking U.S. targets.
It’s also a matter of geography. The officials say the Afghans also choose targets by what they can reach with the limited equipment they have or can borrow from the Americans. If they can borrow two troop-carrying helicopters, they’ll hit a distant valley that has no access by road. But with U.S. forces shrinking and that kind of airlift growing scarcer, traveling by road is often their only option, ruling out many of the potential targets off the beaten path.
That’s why most of the strikes against al-Qaeda in the mountainous and remote eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan are now carried out by U.S. drone strikes, two of the officials said. The Afghan forces can’t get them any other way.
When the U.S. can bring helicopters to the fight, the Afghans are usually game, the officials said. That’s especially true of the Qeta-Khas-e-Moshtarak, or Joint Operations Forces, which has carried out roughly 6,000 operations since 2005, many at night, according to Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi.
The Afghans were originally recruited and trained by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command to join the elite U.S. operators on missions, as indicated by the patch the Afghans still wear emblazoned with the words “Afghan Partnering Forces.”
“Now we are trying to do all our operations independently,” said Colonel Jalaluddin Yaftaly, commander of the elite unit. “We have two problems,” Yaftaly said. “We don't have enough helicopters, and we need more information,” like satellite images and signals intercepts to track the targets, he said in an interview at his headquarters, tucked at the furthest side of a large Afghan army base outside Kabul.
During a recent Karzai-ordered pause in combined U.S. and Afghan strikes it was this unit that kept up the pressure on al-Qaeda, Yaftaly said, carrying out a helicopter-borne raid against a hideout in Kapisa province, and killing eight suspected militants. He said American commandos had helped plan the mission, and U.S. pilots had flown the Afghans in a special operations-modified Black Hawk known as an MH-60, but no U.S. commandos came along.
On the night in question, they were operating alone while Karzai’s security council investigated charges that British special operators were operating illegal prisons. NATO denied the charges, and senior Afghan military leaders eventually convinced Karzai’s security team to allow combined U.S.-Afghan operations to continue.
The Afghans special operators still prefer to raid together with U.S. forces with their access to intelligence, equipment and firepower, enabling the Afghans to hit more targets at night than they can alone.
Two Afghan military officials say that’s why the commanders themselves approached Karzai officials in April and requested that cooperation with the Americans resume.
“We can do a lot of operations independently,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Faiz Mohammad Wafa, of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command. “If we don’t have air support then we move by ground,” but operations run better when the Americans are part of the equation, he said. “Most of the time, our coalition partners…can get more information.”
On Election Day, U.S. special operations forces left security entirely to the Afghans, as a sort of a test. Commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, or CJSOTF-A, Col. Chris Riga said one of his Afghan Commando counterparts boasted of his troops conducting 40 operations that day.
“I don’t believe you,” Riga told him. He said the commander pulled out his records to prove it. “It was pretty impressive,” the Green Beret officer said.
Other officers agree it was a solid performance, but say it was backed up by U.S. intelligence feeds, logistics and planning assistance beforehand that the Afghans cannot yet replicate.
The theme of independence with Americans just off stage continues at Camp Commando outside Kabul, where most elite Afghan forces are trained. Afghan instructors now do the teaching, but Green Beret mentors step in to instruct the instructors on new skills or equipment.
U.S. advisers try to keep meetings with Afghan senior officers to a couple hours a day, where once they used to haunt Afghan offices 24/7. But they are living in a base within the Afghan military camp, able to reach those officers in person at any time—helicopter parenting, perhaps, but the U.S. officers claim that the Afghan Commandos have never lost a fight.
“We’ve accelerated building an army...it’s fought as we’ve built it, and I think we can be justifiably proud of that,” said U.S. Special Forces Green Beret Col. Brian Petit.
The Afghan local police program is the furthest along in transitioning to full independence. The Americans pay for the troops but they have almost completely withdrawn from the villages where they once trained and fought side-by-side the local police. The Afghan Interior Ministry now runs the program and trains the fighters. Karzai officials have actually lobbied the U.S. to expand numbers from 30,000 to 45,000 nationwide, but the Americans have demurred.
They don’t want to raise costs, and with the shrinking U.S. footprint, they can no longer be there to oversee what their former charges get up to. Where they once saw the local police almost every day, U.S. special operators now check in from district over watch posts once or twice a week to make sure the local forces are getting paid, getting ammunition and not becoming predatory instead of protective.
“We learned this—they can’t be alone," said a special operations official who helps oversee the unit. “They have to have a security lifeline, both for 911-type security response, but also to make sure they keep doing what they’re supposed to be doing.” That’s mostly the Afghan Interior Ministry’s job now.
The official said the U.S. special operations command also made a conscious decision to stop reflexively defending ALP every time they were accused of wrongdoing, and instead, turned to the U.N. and other nongovernmental organizations to seek evidence that would help prosecute those responsible, or at least strip them of their positions.
The UN’s annual report on civilians in armed conflict in Afghanistan documented 121 civilian casualties attributed to the ALP in 2013. Cases included the reported arrest and killing of nine Afghan men in Wardak province outside Kabul in 2013. Video also surfaced from the same province of an Afghan man being tortured by other Afghan forces while U.S. special operators looked on. A U.S. military official said the two special operators were punished and other U.S. troops reminded of what they were supposed to be watching for, and stopping. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
“In many areas, the ALP are providing security and the community wants them there,” said Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights at the U.N.’s mission in Afghanistan, which has closely chronicled the ALP’s development. “In other areas, they carry out human-rights violations with impunity.”
She said U.S. special operations officials responded to U.N. complaints by helping set up the “ALP Directorate” in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior, “which is responsive to reports of abuse,” she said.
“Our interaction with U.S. special forces has been constructive,” she said.
But both she and U.S. special operations officials are concerned that the less interaction they have with the Afghans as foreign troops draw down, the less they’ll be able to track and prevent abuse. It’s one of many risks in an Obama policy for Afghanistan that’s full of them.