Training Afghan Forces Is Mission Critical For U.S.

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Training Afghan security forces is seen as a critical component of stabilizing the country. NPR's Jackie Northam is embedded with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, and she talks with host Liane Hansen about efforts to get the new Afghan army battle-ready.


In Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed one member of the U.S.-led coalition and wounded another today. The attack took place on the outskirts of Kabul as a two-vehicle convoy was heading towards an Afghan police training center. There's been an increasing focus on training Afghan security forces. It's seen as a critical component of stabilizing the country. NPR's Jackie Northam has spent the past few days with the U.S. Special Forces as they train Afghan commandos. She's in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Hi, Jackie.


HANSEN: The Special Forces have been in Afghanistan since they helped to drive out the Taliban in 2001. Tell us, does this training program actually mark a change in strategy?

NORTHAM: Well, this is an important part of what the U.S. Special Forces does. It comes into a country, and trains an indigenous - an elite force of commandos, fighters who have more specialized skills than the average soldier. The American military folks that I've been dealing with here over the past few days say the Afghan special forces are key to the whole counterinsurgency, counterterrorism effort here. And so far, five commando battalions have been trained. Each battalion is about 650 to 685 commandos. And another two battalions are planned.

HANSEN: Elaborate a little bit, because you visited one of the training camps, what kind of training are these commandos getting?

NORTHAM: Well, they first receive 12 weeks of initial training at a secluded camp not too far from Kabul, and it's based on what an American soldier would receive in an Army Ranger school. So there's weapons trainings, tactics, signals, reconnaissance, medical, there are drills, just to name a few. But for the most part, this is all done by Afghan trainers, commandos who've already gone through the training and are now passing it on to the new commandos. The Afghan trainers outnumber their counterparts in the U.S. Special Forces by nearly four to one. Certainly, the Americans play an important role, though. They mentor, they advise, they guide.

HANSEN: So after the initial 12 weeks of training, are the Afghans actually ready to perform missions?

NORTHAM: Well, after they've gone through the initial training, they are assigned to a battalion with the national army in, you know, parts all over the country. But they do continue to train with the American forces. I also went to an operational base in Jalalabad, in the eastern part of the country. And a group of Afghan commandos was on a six-week cycle there where they were working more with U.S. Special Forces to hone their skills. And that includes going on missions and often dangerous missions, or raids, ambushes. They're often at night. They're air assaults usually. They're going after insurgents and bomb-making cells. They're accompanied by U.S. Special Forces, but Afghan commandos make up the majority in these missions, and they are in the lead.

They're the first faces a population will see during an operation. And American trainers say it's important to put an Afghan face on these missions. But there - you know, there has been criticism of some of these operations, that the joint special operations forces have just come in too hard, destroyed too much property, and killed innocent civilians. That's not every time. That's, you know, that's - every once in while it happens. Still, the U.S. military says, you know, these missions have been successful, and they've killed insurgents.

HANSEN: How long do you think it'll be until the Afghan forces are actually able to stand up on their own?

NORTHAM: Well, the Afghan commandos I spoke with will say not soon enough, but U.S. Special Forces say it's going to be years. Not necessarily on the tactical side or the skill level. They say they're pleased with the caliber of the Afghan commandos, and that they've improved enormously. But it's the U.S. who is supplying the helicopters for the air assaults, and all the vehicles, and information, intelligence that's needed to plan a raid. And that won't change for a long time.

HANSEN: The casualties meanwhile in Afghanistan are continuing to mount up. Does the United States actually think this Afghan training program is really going to make a difference?

NORTHAM: Well, they certainly hope for it for this, you know, special forces. They hope that it is going to make a difference, the training. This whole process costs a lot of money, it's certainly time-consuming. But one of the question marks is commitment, whether the Afghan army will utilize the commandos' special skills in the future - and already you see efforts to pull them away to do things like road security - and whether the commandos themselves will stick with it over the long haul, particularly if there's any backlash from the Taliban or other Islamist militants.

But there are several battalions now that have been going a year and so far they've been effective. And again, many of the military officials I've spoken with said this is just a - it's a crucial aspect of trying to stabilize Afghanistan.

HANSEN: NPR's Jackie Northam in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Liane.

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