RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHHEIMER, host:

And Im Linda Wertheimer.

Opium is one way the Taliban pay for their war. Drug lords pour hundreds of millions a year into militants' coffers for protection, which is why Afghanistan has trained police commandoes to go after drug traffickers.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to a base south of Kabul to watch an elite unit in action.

(Soundbite of gunfire and a siren)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Dressed in British military khakis, members of Commando Force 333 swarm around several mud-walled compounds near Logar Province, throwing smoke bombs and firing guns. A dozen of these highly-trained officers rush inside, shouting for the residents to surrender. Within minutes, they secure the compounds. The policemen then conduct a thorough search of the buildings, wearing white gloves to avoid contaminating any evidence they find inside.

It's only a training exercise, one performed on this day for U.S. General Stanley McChrystal who heads international forces in Afghanistan.

General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Commander, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan): They're very good.

NELSON: He's clearly impressed.

General MCCHRYSTAL: Im not surprised...

NELSON: McChrystal says such units are key to turning Afghans against insurgents.

General MCCHRYSTAL: While you can use normal units to go out and secure areas and secure people, there's a certain percentage of any insurgency or narcotics elements that have to be targeted for arrest or even for killing, if they don't want to be arrested. So the key is how precise can you be so that you don't harm other people? And that's where it takes units like this with extraordinary maturity. The experience plays a lot into that...

NELSON: Members of Unit Force 333 say they've worked hard to develop that reputation, with the help of their British Special Forces trainers.

In the seven years since the Afghan unit was formed, they've destroyed more than 500 illegal drug labs across Afghanistan, as well as 800 tons of hashish and some 66 tons of heroin. Using leads they collect on their own or from other Afghan security agencies and the Western military, they've arrested and killed scores of drug dealers with Taliban ties.

The unit provides an Afghan solution to Afghan problems, says Major Kash Sadat, who is in the 333 and serves as an aide to General McChrystal.

Major KASH SADAT (Member, Commando Force 333, Logar Province): Absolutely. Yeah, it does make a difference how to speak to people, what to do, what is suspicious in a compound, because he's from that society and he understands everything that goes on in a house.

NELSON: Still, the NATO-led coalition here says it will be years before it's clear how much of a dent the 333 and similar units are putting in the Taliban's resources. That's because the militants and drug lords have stockpiles of drugs from the many years when Afghanistan's opium supply outstripped world demand.

Nor can the 333's success be replicated in any large way across Afghanistan, says Candace Rondeaux, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group. Most Afghan police officers, unlike the commandos, are illiterate and lack adequate resources.

Ms. CANDACE RONDEAUX (Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group): Creating commando force like this, I think, is certainly a positive step. Will it be enough? And will it be sort of the leader and the future of the Afghan National Police? I highly doubt it - for a lot of reasons.

NELSON: Like too few trainers, she's says, and continued problems in getting decent equipment distributed among police officers.

Ms. RONDEAUX: Local commanders have much more incentive to steal from their own police forces, than they do to actually do the right thing because their pay is so low. So I mean I think these elite forces can be extremely positive, but they are not the whole game.

Brigadier General SAEED MOHAMMAD (Leader, Commando Force 333): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Brigadier General Saeed Mohammad, who heads the 333, acknowledges such hurdles. He told McChrystal that terrorism, drugs and corruption are the three things holding his country back.

But he says that he and his men won't give up. He says they must continue to try and create an Afghanistan that is fit for the next generation to live in.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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