Night after night, commandos in U.S. Chinook helicopters descend into remote Afghan villages, wielding M-4 rifles as they swarm Taliban compounds. Such raids began in December in the Sabari District here, long considered too dangerous for U.S. patrols, and have already resulted in the death or capture of 30 insurgent leaders in eastern Afghanistan, according to U.S. commanders.
"The Americans are doing this," the Taliban fighters concluded, according to U.S. intelligence.
But though the commandos carry the best U.S. rifles, wear night-vision goggles and ride in armored Humvees, they are not Americans but Afghans -- trained and advised by U.S. Special Forces teams that are seeking to create a sustainable combat force that will ultimately replace them in Afghanistan.
"This is our ticket out of here," a Special Forces company commander said last month at a U.S. base in Khost, where his teams eat, sleep, train and fight alongside the commandos.
The creation of a 4,000-strong Afghan commando force marks a major evolution for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. After small teams of Green Berets spearheaded the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, they took the lead in combat, with the disparate Afghan militia forces they trained and paid playing a supporting role. Today, by contrast, the Special Forces advisers are putting the Afghan commandos in the lead -- coaching a self-reliant force that U.S. commanders say has emerged as a key tool against insurgents.
Three of six planned Afghan army commando battalions -- with 640 commandos each -- have begun operations over the past five months. U.S. commanders say hurdles remain, from basic logistical issues such as teaching the commandos to conserve water to the larger challenge of ensuring that they are well integrated into the regular Afghan army. Still, the program is a bright spot in the broader effort to train Afghan security forces, a crucial aspect of the NATO and U.S.-led strategy to stabilize Afghanistan -- one that is slowed by a shortage of thousands of trainers and recruits as well as equipment problems.
The new approach also offers the prospect of relief for the Special Forces, strained by years of deployments in Afghanistan, commanders say. At any one time, more than 2,000 Special Forces soldiers and support personnel are on the ground, many operating in 12-man teams partnered with Afghan forces in the country's most troubled districts.
In violent parts of Khost and elsewhere, the commandos play a narrow but critical role: They capture or kill insurgent leaders, financiers and bombmakers as the first phase of the strategy to clear areas of enemy cells, hold the territory and build security and governance. The need for an Afghan force skilled in attacking insurgent networks is particularly pressing, as roadside bombs and suicide attacks have increased since 2006.
In a training camp surrounded by mountains in Khost, Lt. Mohamed Reza, 29, of the 203rd commando battalion counts down for a mock helicopter landing. "One minute . . . 30 seconds . . . touchdown!" His platoon rushes forward, one soldier kicking open the door of a compound before the rest run inside, pivoting into each room. A commando grabs a U.S. trainer impersonating an insurgent, puts him in a painful finger lock and forces him out the door.
"Alaklat!" they yell. All clear!
Looking on, a Special Forces adviser makes sure that the commandos do not miss any rooms and that they deal readily with whatever challenges he throws in their path, such as stray goats or disguised fighters. These rehearsals -- starting with simple drills tracing tape on the ground and rising in complexity to assaults on multistory buildings -- exemplify the exhaustive training they receive.
Commandos compete for selection and go through 12 weeks of initial training at Camp Morehead, south of Kabul, before being assigned to a battalion attached to one of five regional Afghan National Army corps. They then begin a rotation with Special Forces advisers that includes six weeks each of training, missions and recovery.
"Our guys live with them and train with them every day, share all the hardships and are with them shoulder to shoulder on the objective," said Lt. Col. Lynn Ashley, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, which is mentoring the new force. "They really become brothers in arms."
Such a regimen hones the skills of commandos far beyond those of their Afghan army peers, U.S. combat advisers say. In marksmanship, for example, commandos fire more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition in their initial training alone, while the average Afghan soldier fires 60 rounds in training each year. "I've jumped into stacks and gone into a building shooting live rounds with commandos," a U.S. Special Forces communications sergeant said.
The commandos' high-quality gear and training is an advantage that few regular Afghan security forces have. The U.S.-led training effort in Afghanistan lacks about 3,500 trainers -- or more than 40 percent of its required manpower -- a shortfall that will be only partly made up by the 1,000 Marines arriving this month. Afghan police units suffer most from the shortage, with trainers present in only about 30 percent of Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts.
Special Forces advisers show the commandos videos of their missions, to build pride. "We are the best unit in Afghanistan right now," said Sgt. 1st Class Mohaber Rahman, 22, the platoon sergeant.
"We do everything quickly and accurately," added Pvt. Said Askar, 25, a medic and kung fu instructor.
The commandos also receive $50 in extra pay each month -- raising the total pay of a junior sergeant, for example, to $200 -- as well as better equipment than their regular army counterparts and a double ration of food. "Nobody wants to quit this unit," Reza said over a meal of flat bread, stewed meat and rice with raisins.
In many commando raids, the sudden arrival of an overwhelming force causes insurgents to surrender without a fight, U.S. advisers said. In December, about 200 commandos in Khost and dozens of Green Berets surrounded five targets in one night, detaining five insurgent leaders and 18 suspects involved with bombmaking cells -- all without firing a shot. And on Feb. 9, commandos captured Nasimulla, the leader of a Taliban bomb cell based in Sabari responsible for attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces.
"These are targets we would hit ourselves if they weren't here," said a Special Forces captain who, like other Special Forces soldiers, spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. "They are going after the highest-level guys we can pull out of the area."
The Afghans are arguably better suited for the raids because they know the language and culture and can gather intelligence more easily and avoid friction with civilians, according to the advisers. In one instance recently, a commando found an insurgent hiding in a sheepfold after U.S. troops passed by, the company commander said. And when a suicide truck bomb struck the Sabari District center March 3, killing two U.S. soldiers, the Americans asked the commandos to help secure the area. "That was the first time I ever heard U.S. forces request Afghan assistance," said the company sergeant major. "There were Americans buried underneath the rubble."
But the commandos still have much to learn -- sometimes frustrating their U.S. advisers. "We yell at them for . . . drinking too much [water], constantly eating, using their under-gun lights to walk to the bathroom," one U.S. adviser said, adding that the Afghans lacked effective methods for distributing and conserving resources. "They'll have 20 bottles of water, five guys and four days to go -- they'll just drink it and look at you and say, 'I need more water,' " the sergeant major said. The logistics problems, he said, are "across the board."
The commandos rely on U.S. forces to provide helicopters for transport, attack and medical evacuation, as well as satellite communications, intelligence and a range of other support.
A larger issue for U.S. advisers is how to integrate the commandos into the Afghan National Army. "My biggest concern is right now I need to get the rest of the ANA to really understand Afghan commando operations," which differ from conventional maneuvers, the company commander said. "We are trained to do so much more than to air assault into really treacherous areas and be an anvil for the hammer of the regular heavier forces to smash."
Ultimately, the goal is for Afghan commandos to rotate into regular infantry units to spread their skills, "like U.S. Army Rangers," Ashley said. Added Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, who until this month was the top U.S. commander for eastern Afghanistan, "They're professional, they're well led, they're well disciplined. And they're really setting the standards for the rest of the Afghan National Army."
For the Green Berets, many of whom have had several tours in Afghanistan, the commandos offer hope of an eventual respite. "We're not saying we're anywhere close to getting out of here," said the company commander, who has had five tours, while spending just five months with his 2-year-old daughter. Even as the Afghans step forward, he said, "it's going to take a long time."