The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s special forces are a bastion of hope

Afghanistan’s special forces are a bastion of hope

A growing confidence in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) capabilities appears to be an important factor in planning for a smaller U.S. residual force as Washington charts its post-2014 security mission. But despite ANSF’s extraordinary growth rate, its abilities are increasingly limited largely because it was raised with low recruitment criteria and cannot function without continued international support. Although the Afghan army and police have slowly improved their skills in combat, their capacity and reach is still inadequate. In the past couple of years, the readiness and efficiency of the ANSF had been further undermined by a rising number of casualties, higher attrition and desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, and a growing distrust from their international partners over insider attacks.

However, among the promising elements of the ANSF are the Afghan Special Operation Forces or Afghan SOF. These are the elite Afghan commandos who are advised by U.S. Special Forces teams and are more carefully vetted than other members of the Afghan security forces. Members of Afghan SOF are picked from select units within the Afghan army and the police. After an initial three-month training in reconnaissance and other skills-including advanced rifle marksmanship, mortars and convoy operations, intelligence gathering, combat communications and medical skills-Afghan SOF then embed with U.S. forces for a six-month on-the-job training deployment before stepping out on their own. These elite fighting forces are widely commended by U.S. commanders for their competence in leading independent operations and specialized missions, including their roles in replacing U.S. forces in conducting night raids that have long triggered popular anger and strained U.S.-Afghan relations. Casualties in Afghan SOF units are minimal, and they have only experienced one "insider attack," which further adds to their credibility.

However, a number of important challenges will hamper the ability and success of these nascent forces after 2014.

Prominent among them is the size of the contingent. While the ANSF overall strength presently boasts at 350,000 troops, the number of Afghan SOF is at a trifling 12,000 personnel, which has increasingly limited their reach across the country. In order to expand their grasp, the Pentagon should boost the size of Afghan commandos by at least another 15 to 20 thousand soldiers.

Raising and sustaining elite forces is unquestionably more costly than the conventional forces. However, the Pentagon must weigh the cost of sufficient defense against the cost and implications of having resource-strapped Afghan SOF units confined to their bases with a lighter U.S. military footprint on the ground. With so much at stake, U.S. commanders must recognize the value of such a force in Afghanistan – a war that has so far cost U.S. taxpayers over half a trillion dollars. And while the upkeep of each American soldier in Afghanistan alone reportedly costs the Pentagon one million dollars a year – an estimated $66 billion for the current force level-maintaining an efficient, well-trained, and somewhat high-tech Afghan security force is a low-priced insurance policy.

Additionally, the Afghan Defense Ministry is already making long-term changes to structuring its security force to ensure it is affordable. By 2017, the ANSF force level is scheduled to shrink from 350,000 troops to roughly 240,000, a nearly 30 percent reduction in personnel. Higher pay will boost retention rates for the reduced force, which may mitigate the current problems with high attrition and desertion rates within the Army, and could mean fewer soldiers to replace. In this case, the downsized conventional force should be reorganized and modernized. And the ongoing reduction of international forces in Afghanistan must come with a renewed commitment from NATO to shouldering some of the cost of boosting the size of Afghan SOF.

Given the United States’ own budgetary and fiscal problems, the optics of any added financial commitment to expanding the Afghan commandos units will understandably be unappealing to Washington. However, the Obama administration’s affinity for America’s own Special Forces should inform the White House’s understanding that it will be these burgeoning Afghan Special Forces that will not only fend Afghanistan after 2014 but also deter the many existential security challenges that may threaten U.S. national security.

Another important challenge that hinders the ability of the Afghan SOF to function effectively is the lack of enablers-air and fire support, aerial surveillance, intelligence, medevac, and other resources-that U.S. troops currently provide. Regardless of how well the Afghan Special Forces are trained, they simply cannot stay operational in combat without these important enablers. Fortunately, the Pentagon is reportedly exploring plans to train and equip the ANSF with vehicles, attack helicopters, a handful of cargo planes, unarmed tactical drones, and other necessary equipment. These capabilities will only augment the crucial role Afghan SOF units play in preserving Afghan stability, without which they will be confined mostly to their bases, ceding the countryside to insurgent elements, including the Taliban.

As the ANSF take on the operational lead in nearly ninety percent of Afghanistan and the international forces assume their number one goal to "to train, assist and advise Afghan forces" by this spring, achieving the goal of ultimately having Afghan forces lead security nationwide at the end of 2014 will depend largely on their combat skills and readiness. The ANSF readiness this year will also depend on whether they continue to benefit from U.S. air support and other enablers. The Afghan SOF program is a bright spot and a critical element in the Afghan security forces, but their reach is limited given their small number and the lack of enablers, equipment and trainers. Responsibly preparing to deter many of the threats Afghanistan will face after 2014 requires more Afghan Special Forces. However, if the United States’ post-2014 mission in Afghanistan is narrowly focused on counterterrorism operations, any continuing training of Afghan forces will be severely undermined, and that will have drastic implications for the larger Afghan transition.

Javid Ahmad, a founding member of Afghan Analytica, is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views reflected here are his own.