Published On: Thu, Jul 28th, 2016

Afghan Special Forces Feeling Not So Special Anymore

Afghanistan – Why ISIS Failed in The Graveyard of Caliphates - Taliban

By Jessica Donati and Habib Khan Totakhil

Morale among some Afghan special forces is wearing thin as they are increasingly called upon to lead the fight against the Taliban, with teams feeling exploited by their leadership and missing U.S. support.

Sgt. Peer Khapalwak’s battalion has been operating alone in this western district, one of the most dangerous in the country, since the Americans left more than a year ago. During that time, the Taliban have spread from rural areas to the main town and highways, and regularly attack the governor’s office.

The sergeant has a team stationed on the top floor of the bullet-ridden building to prevent it from being overrun—a job that should normally be done by the police or army.

Instead of chasing top-level Taliban commanders in their area, other teams are routinely dispatched to deliver food to stranded police and Afghan army bases. Instead of flying around in U.S. helicopters, most of their missions are conducted by road, where they are more vulnerable to Taliban ambush and usually far from any advanced medical assistance.

“We are not afraid of fighting,” said Mohammad Kazim, a special forces medic in Shindand who works with Sgt. Khapalwak. “But we are afraid of dying in the battlefield because of a preventable wound.”

Sgt. Khapalwak recalled a recent nine-day operation to clear a Taliban stronghold here—a struggle that cost six lives. Then, he said, the special forces were ordered to evacuate and the regular army and police lacked the resources to hold the territory, which is back under Taliban control. “All of us were angry about it,” he said.

The defense ministry said the army’s job was to clear enemy territory, but it couldn’t be expected to stay in those areas indefinitely.

Such pressure has led to changes in how Afghan special forces are used. One of the country’s success stories, they have been closely mentored by U.S. Special Forces, and still partner with them on about 20% of operations.

Their ranks of 11,000 take few casualties; just 32 killed since it was set up in 2007. Attrition, a huge problem in the police and army, is also low.

Although they were trained for specialized operations like capturing or killing enemy commanders, however, they now make up the bulk of front-line fighters. No other Afghan forces seem up to the task.

“The government sends these [army and police] guys to fight without proper training and equipment and when they are deployed, they are killed,” said Alam Khan, a deputy special forces commander who works with Sgt. Khapalwak.

The U.S. military still maintains a formidable presence in major strategic provinces like Helmand and Kunduz, and it has increased efforts against the Taliban and a growing Islamic State presence since the White House granted it greater leeway to conduct offensive operations. But President Barack Obama plans to continue reducing the U.S. troop contingent in the country to 8,400 by the end of his term, from 9,800 now.

To compensate, the U.S.-led coalition is scrambling to improve Afghanistan’s conventional forces, which are supposed to number 352,000, although many are believed to be AWOL.

“We are not going to flip a switch and tomorrow everything is perfect,” said Gen. Charles Cleveland, spokesman for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. “What we’re trying to do is to get the conventional forces to the point where they can come in and kind of follow up.”

Gen. Jalaluddin Yaftali, the commander of the Afghan special forces, says he battles daily with top Afghan security officials to keep his forces from being used to replace conventional forces.

But sometimes, he has no choice. A recent attempt to recapture Musa Qala in southern Helmand province ended in disaster when one commando was killed by a rocket and two others while waiting for reinforcements that never arrived.

“We had to evacuate when we started running out of ammunition,” Gen. Yaftali said.

American and British troops fought for years in Musa Qala, where they suffered some of their heaviest losses. They are now focusing their efforts in the area on preventing Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, from falling.

Even though the Americans are in the same province as Afghan commandos, they aren’t in the same district and no longer close enough for immediate assistance.

“The good days have passed when we used to get everything immediately from the Americans,” Sgt. Khapalwak said.

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