Americans build elite Afghan commando force
The commando battalions, just a year old, are being trained and deployed nationally as a mobile, quick-reaction force.
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Indeed, the base generates a sense of permanence with its neat rows of tin-roofed buildings, clean streets, and the bustle of construction on its far side. Surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, there is an American side and an Afghan side, each with its own living and working areas. On the commandos' side is a black billboard featuring a steely-eyed soldier and reminds commandos that they are "the best among bests"; a well-equipped, well-trained, and brave force "to do dangerous and difficult tasks."Skip to next paragraph
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The difficulty of the work the commandos do means that they have been given a unique, 18-week operations cycle. The commandos receive extra pay as well as double amounts of food each day, an uncommon perk. Each battalion trains for six weeks, conducts missions for six more, and then essentially "refits and recovers" for an additional six weeks, during which time they may go on leave and see their families.
Snaking into the tire house
On a recent day, after their Afghan trainer gave them the high sign, a group of commandos moves into a practice building fabricated cheaply out of stacks of tires. As the trainer yells commands in Farsi or Pashto, the "stacks" – lines – of men snake into the rooms, weapons pointed, and yell "dum, dum dum dum," as they mock the sound of gunfire.
But something strikes the trainer as amiss. He pointedly shoves a soldier's weapon down to the ground, jolting the soldier to attention and loudly scolding him, perhaps a bit more loudly for a visitor's benefit. His message: Aim the weapon at a potential target – not absentmindedly at the ceiling above.
It's a question of showing them "what right looks like," as another American officer here says.
The training has produced four battalions, or kandaks, of about 650 commandos each, now assigned permanently around the country and two more are on the way. The commandos have begun to plan some pieces of their own counterterrorism missions, including a violent one recently in the northeastern province of Nuristan that netted key insurgents.
"What we really want to do is empower the Afghans," says the American commanding officer of the Special Forces details. Success is measured in small steps, like the commandos' budding ability to plan their own missions. Now they think at least two weeks ahead, instead of just one day ahead, trainers here say.
"For us, it's a huge step," the American officer says. But even as the commandos progress toward more independence, American Special Forces units, who count as a core mission their ability to train foreign militaries, hope to imbue their charges with the expert training that can help shape a stronger conventional Afghan Army.
The US trainers also face some education of their own. Last year, during Ramadan, in which Muslims fast during the day, the Special Forces tried to continue training. But they quickly realized that stamina was an issue. "It's always a learning process," says one officer.
But the training has translated to some tactical victories on the battlefield. One commando battalion helped American Special Forces on a recent operation in Nuristan that reportedly netted several members of the terrorist group Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), who, along with the Taliban, also operate here.
The April 6 mission led to a coalition airstrike that, along with the ground fight- ing, left as many as 20 dead.