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Afghanistan Dispatch

Training The Elite Afghan Commandos

NPR reporter Tom Bowman and NPR photographer David Gilkey filed this post from Afghanistan.

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One of the key jobs for U.S. special forces, going back to the Vietnam War, is to train local forces. The only way to end a counterinsurgency is to create enough government forces to turn the tide. At Firebase Thomas in western Afghanistan, U.S. Army Special Forces, popularly known as Green Berets, train the 6th Kandak (Battalion) of the 207th Corps, the elite fighters of the Afghan army.

The Green Berets are training the commandos to mirror their own approach to warfare. Killing is just one part of it: They also want the commandos to reach out to the population — providing humanitarian relief and building schools.

It's all a challenge. The illiteracy rate in the country hovers around 90 percent, so the commandos can mount simple operations with their American mentors. But Special Forces soldiers say it will take time, maybe years, before the Afghans are as competent a fighting force as the Iraqi commandos. An average Afghan soldier may shoot 200 rounds from his AK-47, but the commandos shoot up to 7,000 rounds. They practice driving their armored Humvees through an obstacle course that includes fake roadside bombs. They use metal detectors to pinpoint a bomb, then a combat knife to carefully lift it from the ground.

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And they put their training into practice. One night, the Special Forces and the 207th loaded up and headed south, driving through the desert for hours and finally circling a group of houses that included a top Taliban supplier. As he raised his weapon, he was killed.