Image: Afghanistan commandos
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Soldiers of the 6th Kandak Commandos of the Afghan National Army pray outside during a dinner to celebrate the end of their operational cycle at their training base close to Rish Khoor village near Kabul, Afghanistan.
updated 9/12/2009 9:08:39 PM ET 2009-09-13T01:08:39

Col. Farid stood in front of Afghanistan's first commando unit two years ago and posed a simple question.

"How many Afghans do we have?" the Afghan commander asked the more than 700 commandos standing in formation.

The commandos hesitated for a moment, and then all raised their hands.

It might seem an obvious answer, but it wasn't. Before their 12 weeks of advanced commando training, many of the recruits would have been more likely to respond that they were Pashtun, Tajik or another of Afghanistan's more than a dozen ethnic groups, Farid said, recounting the story.

Setting aside ethnic differences to form a national identity and a soldier's bond has been one of the keys to the progress of the Afghan Commando Brigade.

The brigade is one of the few modest successes of the U.S. effort to train their Afghan counterparts. Training an effective national army is a crucial piece of the strategy to stabilize Afghanistan laid out by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, after he took charge in June.

As the U.S. public tires of rising troop deaths and increasing Taliban violence almost eight years after the U.S. invasion, expanding the size of the Afghan army — so that American troops can withdraw sooner — has attracted an increasing number of supporters.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin on Friday urged the Obama administration to enlarge the Afghan army to 240,000 troops by 2013. Current plans call for boosting the army from 92,000 soldiers to 134,000 by late 2011.

'Wolves'
The commandos, nicknamed the "Wolves," are the army's elite counterinsurgency force, and work in the most violent parts of Afghanistan. Trained by U.S. Special Forces, they play a critical role by capturing or killing insurgent leaders and bomb makers.

Last week, the 3rd Kandak Commandos, with their Special Forces trainers, found over 5 tons of ammonium nitrate and other bomb-making materials in a bazaar near Kandahar. The commandos also uncovered more than 800 pounds (360 kilograms) of opium and a cache of rocket-propelled grenades.

Arturo Munoz, an analyst for the RAND Corp. think tank in Washington, said the elite unit is one example of U.S. progress in training the Afghan army. The commandos have shown the ability to work independently from their U.S. trainers, a measure of progress, he said.

Duplicating that achievement across the wider army may be more difficult, because the commandos are the army's best recruits and receive intensive training, Munoz said. Still, they are proof that training can produce results, and Munoz said "you win the war" if the U.S. can extend the results to the rest of the army.

Ethnic and sectarian problems plagued U.S. efforts to build a national army in Iraq, and the problems have not yet been entirely overcome. For years Sunnis refused to join or serve in non-Sunni areas, considering the army and police extensions of Shiite militias.

In Kurdish areas, American trainers routinely roamed the training barracks, tearing down flags and banners of the Kurdish political parties that commanded recruits' loyalty ahead of the national government.

Afghanistan's wider army has not suffered from those problems, and is largely considered a success. Eliminating the ethnic tensions that drove Afghanistan's 1990s civil war is a crucial hurdle in training the force.

"The big challenge of the Afghan army from day one was: Can they create a multiethnic army — a truly national army?" Munoz said.

In the commandos, at least, the answer appears to be yes.

'Building identity'
Farid was born to a Tajik father and a Pashtun mother, but when anyone asks, he says he is Afghan. Now deputy commander of the brigade, he insists his commandos adopt the same attitude.

"We have problems in our society, but not in the commandos," said Farid, who like many in Afghanistan uses only one name. "We can kill many enemy, but most important for me as a leader is building identity. I am seeing the benefits of that unity of identity."

Commandos from different ethnic groups live, eat and fight side-by-side without trouble, U.S. troops say, a level of pride and discipline that is not as common across the wider army.

A Special Forces captain who served with units from the Afghan National Army in the past said he expected to deal with ethnic and tribal issues. But when he arrived in Afghanistan to train the commandos, the issue never came up.

"It is like the U.S. — nobody cares if I am Italian, Irish or Polish," said the captain. Military embed rules for Special Forces units do not allow him to be identified by name. "The only thing that matters is the quality of the soldier. It's the example of what we are trying to accomplish here."

Modeled after U.S. Army Rangers, the commandos use American weapons, wear older versions of American uniforms and drive around in tan Ford Ranger 4X4s.

Six of the eight planned Afghan commando battalions — with more than 700 commandos each — are operating. Commandos first attend 10 weeks of basic training that all army recruits go through. After being selected for the commandos based on intelligence, physical fitness and personality traits, they train an additional 12 weeks.

Video: Support waning for war in Afghanistan Trained in a former Soviet and Taliban military base near Kabul, the commandos are taught marksmanship and tactics. The training ends with a combat operation near the training base.

"We live with a force, eat with a force and train with a force," said Lt. Col. Don Randle, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, which is training the commandos. "That is how you build your bond."

It is during training that the commandos shed their ethnic identities and put the unit first, commando officers said.

Col. Nahim, the 6th Kandak Commando commander, is an Uzbek. His executive officer is a Tajik and his command sergeant major is Pashtun. His soldiers come from all over Afghanistan.

"As you can see, we have all of these tribes here but no problems," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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