Making the Afghan Special Forces
(by Sean D. Naylor)
CAMP MOREHEAD, WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Here on the outskirts of Kabul, a single Special Forces A-team has been charged with a responsibility unprecedented since the Vietnam era: creating an Afghan Special Forces organization from scratch.
The establishment of the Afghan National Army Special Forces, the first members of which graduated from their qualification course May 13, is part of a larger trend toward a more traditionally “indirect” counterinsurgency approach on the part of elite Afghan units trained by U.S. Special Forces. The 7,000-strong Afghan Commando Brigade — the country’s premier infantry force — is expanding beyond its core “direct action” mission set aimed at killing or capturing insurgents and now conducts disaster relief operations and what the military terms “key leader engagements” with tribal and village elders.
The Commandos and ANA Special Forces are also gaining trained information operations soldiers under the Afghan Information Dissemination Operations program while a plan to develop a special operations civil affairs program is in its infancy.
But it is the ANA Special Forces program — to which Army Times was granted exclusive access — that is the biggest indicator of a strategic shift in the role played by Afghanistan’s burgeoning special operations forces. The establishment of the ANA SF is intended “to create an indigenous special operations force capable of countering enemy efforts head on, at the lowest level possible: the Afghan tribal and family subsystems,” according to a slide briefing given to visitors at Camp Morehead. “These teams will surpass any coalition force in terms of access and placement within the population.” In other words, the ANA SF is being created to deny the insurgents the easy access to the population they currently enjoy in many places.
U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the program predict that the creation of a force modeled explicitly on its U.S. Army namesake will have a major impact on the war, allowing Afghan troops and their coalition allies to exponentially expand their “village stability operations” (previously referred to as the Local Defense Initiative and the Community Defense Initiative), whereby special operations forces train villagers to defend their own turf against insurgents.
Afghan cultural barriers
But to make the ANA SF program a success, U.S. Special Forces trainers must break through several Afghan cultural barriers. The program also requires a pause in the creation of ANA Commando battalions, or “kandaks,” and entails stripping the Commandos of some of their best leaders.
The ANA Special Forces program was the brainchild of Brig. Gen. Ed Reeder, said Col. Don Bolduc, the commander of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan. Reeder, a career Special Forces officer, was commander of Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan until March and exercised overall control over most U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan that were not part of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command task force.
“His vision was to develop a force very similar to U.S. Army Special Forces to deliver the same type of expertise within the Afghan Army to be able to do this population-centric mission,” Bolduc said, adding that after International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal signed off on the program, the final decision to create the ANA Special Forces was taken by the Afghan government.
“The ANA SF will provide a significant contribution to the village stability operations program, which is inherently focused on an Afghan solution to Afghan problems at the lowest level,” Bolduc said.
The population is the center of gravity in the COIN [counterinsurgency] fight,” and ANA Special Forces will be Afghanistan’s “true population-centric SOF capability,” said Maj. Jeff James, who heads the company, or B-team, at Morehead responsible for running the training courses for both ANA SF and the much larger Commando Brigade. (In order to embed with U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, Army Times agreed not to identify special operations personnel below the rank of lieutenant colonel — unless specifically cleared — or specific units and home stations.)
James said he received the order to create the Afghan Special Forces — with core tasks of internal defense, special reconnaissance and direct action — in December, while still in the U.S. preparing for deployment. With a speed unusual for defense programs, the idea is becoming reality.
While Reeder’s planners at CFSOCC-A (pronounced SIF’-sahk-ay) drew up a task organization for a notional Afghan Special Forces unit, James gave the mission to turn that concept into trained Afghan special operators to one of his operational detachment-alphas, or A-teams, Jan. 5. The first class of the ANA SF qualification course was set to begin March 6, giving the team, which arrived at Morehead the last week of January, only eight weeks to develop a program of instruction, organize the physical infrastructure at the camp and organize itself for the task ahead, all while deploying from the home station. “The biggest challenge initially was the timeline,” said the A-team leader, a 32-year-old captain from Boerne, Texas.
Following a recommendation from CJSOTF-A, the Afghan Ministry of Defense decided to recruit the first two classes of ANA Special Forces candidates exclusively from the Commandos, a direct action force only three years old but widely regarded as the most capable, professional element in the ANA. This would ensure that ANA SF candidates — all volunteers — were already well-trained in direct action, so the U.S. trainers could focus their efforts on instilling the skills required for internal defense and special reconnaissance, the B-team commander said.
This also allowed the U.S. instructors to limit the length of the first two classes to 10 weeks. Future classes, recruited from across the ANA, will be much larger — about 300 compared with the roughly 80 in each of the first two classes — and will undertake a 15-week course.
Of 145 Commandos who volunteered for the first class, 68 failed to make the cut after a one-week assessment and selection course. Of the 77 who began the qualification course, 69 remain. On May 13 they received their Special Forces tab (which will sit on top of their Commando patch) and be formed into four A-teams of 15 soldiers each, one of which will be held back to form an Afghan cadre to help train the next class. Each team will be considered fully mission-capable at that point, but they will not be considered “Special Forces qualified” until they have completed a 26-week “on-the- job training” period during which each ANA A-team will be partnered with a U.S. A-team and required to successfully perform a series of tasks. Only at the end of those 26 weeks in the field will they receive the tan berets that distinguish them as ANA Special Forces soldiers. Longer-term plans call for the creation of 72 ANA Special Forces A-teams, grouped into four kandaks, under an ANA Special Forces group headquarters.
The U.S. and Afghan leaders familiar with how the first ANA SF class has performed speak very highly of the program’s potential. “What we’re seeing now in training has been nothing but superb,” Bolduc said.
“This ANA SF — that’s a grand slam out of the ballpark,” said the command sergeant major of the B-team overseeing the training, a 43-year-old on his fifth Afghanistan tour. Once the ANA SF teams are operational, instead of an American working with villagers, “It’ll be an Afghan who might mediate a tribal dispute, and he’s a Special Forces team leader or team sergeant who’s adept at these cultural nuances, and he’s an Afghan,” he said.
Potential ‘game changer’?
Asked whether the new force had the potential to be a “game changer” in the struggle against the insurgents, Lt. Col. Donald Franklin, commander of Special Operations Task Force-East, which is based, like Bolduc’s CJSOTF-A, at Bagram Airfield, answered, “Sure.”
“What they’ll bring is that small team in the hinterlands meeting with and talking with the locals about the government and how to connect with the district,” ultimately connecting villagers with the government at the provincial and national level, said Franklin, who is on his third Afghanistan tour.
The generals who head each of the regional commands in Afghanistan are keen to get their hands on the ANA SF, the command sergeant major said. “Every one of them want this ANA SF product, and I think a year from now they’ll be screaming for it even louder … because they’re going to see the performance on the battlefield,” he said. “This is the right answer.”
Afghan officers familiar with the ANA SF program were equally enthusiastic. “If we get an ANA Special Forces unit, it’ll be a lot better for Afghanistan,” said ANA Col. Mohammed Naim Majeedi, commander of the 6th Commando Kandak, adding that it would be best for the U.S. Special Forces cadre members to train their ANA counterparts as they themselves had been trained, because the Americans would not be in Afghanistan “forever.”
“You’ll see the results of producing Afghan Special Forces within two years, inshallah,” said the leader of one of the first four teams to be trained in the program.
The ANA Special Forces are designed along U.S. lines. Whereas the basic building block of U.S. Special Forces is the 12-man A-team led by a captain, with a warrant officer and a team sergeant rounding out the leadership team, the equivalent Afghan Special Forces unit is a 15-man A-team led by a captain, with a first lieutenant executive officer and a team sergeant underneath him. Like U.S. A-teams, the remaining members include two each of the following: medical sergeants, weapons sergeants, engineer sergeants and communications sergeants.
The Afghan teams will also have two intelligence sergeants (U.S. A-teams have only one), plus an information dissemination sergeant and a civil-military operations specialist. Original plans to have an Afghan National Police representative and a religious officer on each team had to be postponed due to bureaucratic difficulties in the case of the former and a dearth of religious officers in the case of the latter.
Franklin, commander of the battalion responsible for standing up the Commandos and the ANA Special Forces, said creating the SF teams was “probably” the more difficult challenge, because of the cultural barriers to such a force in Afghanistan. “This is a warrior society,” he said. “When you start talking about creating an ANA SF and changing a mindset to get to the indirect approach … it is a long process to get guys to think differently about how to approach a problem.”
Rather than focusing strictly on basic skills, the U.S. trainers say, they concentrate on developing adaptive leadership and critical thinking on the part of the students. “Starting from Day 1, it’s been a complete overhaul of their mind and the way they think,” said the team sergeant of the A-team training the Afghans.
The U.S. team made three members of what the Americans said was the best of the four nascent ANA SF teams available for interview. Based on their comments, it seems that at least some of the Afghans have already internalized the differences between the direct-action approach of their former unit and the indirect mindset associated with Special Forces.
“The Commandos have three words: bravery, speed and power,” the Afghan team leader said. “But in Special Forces, before you show your power, your bravery or anything else, you’ve got to think about it. You’ve got to use your mind. … You’ve got to think through the ramifications.”
“Most missions in the Commandos were aggressive: Go after a bad guy … [and] detain him if possible; if not, just shoot him,” the Afghan team sergeant said. “This was a killing game. When I came to Special Forces, I learned there were other ways to solve problems.” As an example, he said, sometimes it is better to ask the insurgents “to join the government” than to just attack them.
“In Special Forces, I can learn so many other ways besides fighting the bad guys,” the team sergeant said. “We can do lots of other things besides fighting,” agreed the civil-military operations sergeant.
As evidence that the adaptive thinking mindset was taking root, Franklin cited the example of an ANA SF candidate who, given the task of infiltrating a nearby village undetected in order to conduct “close target reconnaissance” — essentially monitoring an individual’s movements unseen — during a recent training exercise, took it upon himself to show up in a construction worker’s outfit to make himself less conspicuous.
From the perspective of the U.S. trainers, the toughest challenges involved closing the cultural gap that existed between the officer candidates and the sergeants so that they could work closely together. The ANA still suffers from a Soviet-style mindset that discourages initiative on the part of noncommissioned officers and leads officers to adopt an elitist attitude. At first, officer candidates in the course didn’t want to live with or even stand in formation beside their NCOs, the U.S. A-team leader said. Ten officers — all members of the Pashtun ethnic group — dropped from the course because they couldn’t cope with what the Americans were pushing them to do, he said.
But by borrowing the U.S. Special Forces qualification course tactic of stripping all identifying insignia away from the candidates and referring to them only by a serial number for the first few weeks of the course, eventually the U.S. trainers were able to break down this attitude. Now, “if one of my guys gets sick, it’s as if one of my own arms hurts,” the Afghan A-team leader said. Having gotten the officers to view their NCOs with greater respect, the U.S. trainers then had to teach the sergeants to make decisions for themselves without waiting for an officer to give them an order.
‘Not a free minute’
The students spend three of the 10 weeks on training specific to their individual military specialty (such as intelligence or weapons) and the remaining seven training as a team, including a month of small-unit tactics and three weeks focused on critical thinking and advanced skills. The students’ day starts at 6 a.m. and continues until late into the night, the U.S. team’s senior communications sergeant said. “There’s not a free minute in our training schedule,” the team sergeant said.
The first two weeks of training included two hours of map reading instruction every night, the U.S. A-team leader said. “Some guys couldn’t even read the map” when they began the course, his team sergeant added.
Another challenge for the U.S. trainers has been the Afghan government’s insistence that the new force be ethnically diverse, which conflicts with the requirement that all the candidates be volunteers, the B-team leader said. While most studies estimate that the Pashtuns, from whom the Taliban and other insurgents draw the vast majority of their personnel, are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, with about 40 percent of the population, Pashtuns are underrepresented in the ANA, and thus also in the Commandos and the ANA Special Forces. “We didn’t get a lot of Pashtun volunteers,” the U.S. A-team leader said.
By contrast, the Hazara minority, which accounts for an estimated 18 percent of the population, but which is more highly educated than the Pashtuns, represents about 38 percent of the first ANA SF graduating class. “The Hazaras blew every other ethnicity away in terms of IQ,” the U.S. A-team leader said. “They’re great students,” his team sergeant said. “They learn quickly.”
The diversity requirement meant that soldiers who might not have made the cut for the first class were otherwise included. “It really makes it tough to create a Special Forces [organization] while having policies like this,” the U.S. A-team leader said. But he acknowledged that some degree of diversity — and particularly Pashtun inclusion — was a necessity for achieving victory in the Pashtun south and east, where the war is largely being fought. “It would be hard to send a Hazara team down south,” he said.
In the short term, the organization paying the highest price for the formation of the ANA Special Forces is the Commando Brigade, which will see its size capped — at least temporarily — at nine kandaks in order to free up resources to create the ANA SF. “The bill payer to build [ANA] Special Forces was the 10th, 11th and 12th Commando Kandaks,” said the U.S. B-team leader, who added that establishing the ANA SF will cost the Commandos some of their best officers and NCOs.
These losses were keenly felt by Majeedi, the commander of the 6th Commando Kandak. “I am worried because in the past two to three months, they took 30 of my best officers and NCOs,” he said. “The officers who replaced them are not as professional, experienced or qualified,” he added, citing as an example a new company commander who had lost two personnel killed in action and three wounded in a battle the previous week.
The U.S. Special Forces soldiers whose job it is to fashion raw ANA soldiers into adaptive, creative Afghan special operators remain undaunted by these problems. “There’s going to be lots of potholes and bumps along the way,” the B-team command sergeant major said. “It’s not going to be easy. But if this were easy, we’d be doing something else.”