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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When the U.S.-led coalition attacked Afghanistan in late 2001, it was the U.S. Special Forces units that spearheaded the overthrow of the Taliban. In the seven years since then, these American commandos have been continually rotating into Afghanistan to fight what has become a tough and protracted battle against the Taliban and other Islamist militants. Now the Special Forces are involved in an ambitious training project expected to pay dividends in the counter-insurgency struggle. NPR's Jackie Northam has spent much of the past week and a half with the U.S. Special Forces, and has this first of two reports.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

JACKIE NORTHAM: Like most other destinations in Afghanistan, the best, fastest way to reach Camp Morehead is by helicopter. The military base sits in a low valley surrounded by the rugged, bald mountains that dominate the landscape in Eastern Afghanistan. From the air, you can see the military base that has been occupied by various forces over the years, the Russians and the Taliban included. Now the U.S. Special Forces are the primary tenants at Camp Morehead. They're using it as a training camp for Afghan army commandos.

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Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)

NORTHAM: Two lines of Afghan soldiers from the 209th Army Corps march lock step along the camp's dusty, unpaved roads. They are the latest of five battalions that have passed through the camp since training began in early spring 2007. Each Afghan battalion averages about 650 commandos. At the moment, they are being trained by the 7th Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, with help from other commandos from France and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. Special Forces launched the Afghan commando program for several reasons. In part, it's what they do: train indigenous forces. It was also created in an effort to help the ANA, Afghanistan's conventional army, says Colonel Sean Mulholland, the Commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

Colonel SEAN MULHOLLAND (Commander, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan): The Afghan government wanted to develop a Ranger-like or a special ops-like structure in the military. But they need a smaller, more agile, flexible force. And so the commandos was the solution.

NORTHAM: Mulholland says the Afghan Special Forces are critical to the broader, counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan. They're trained to ambush or attack militant hideouts and bomb-making facilities, to capture or kill insurgents, and to try to build a rapport with people in the villages where Islamist militants are present. For the new Afghan commando recruits, Camp Morehead is the first stop.

Col. MULHOLLAND: This is the commando training company compound. This is where all the students live for the 12 weeks that they're here.

NORTHAM: A trim, 35-year-old major in the Special Forces commands the training center. He, like others of his rank or below, are not allowed to identify themselves to reporters for security reasons. He says the Afghan commandos are trained in seven specialty platoons, including mortars, reconnaissance and signals.

Col MULHOLLAND: This is the medical platoon.

(Soundbite of chatter)

NORTHAM: Afghan soldiers here practice administering IVs, tying tunicates and performing CPR. Specialty platoons such as this are taught by U.S. contractors.

Unidentified Man #2: These guys are ready to be evaluated. (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: Okay, your patient is not breathing. Go.

NORTHAM: Two Afghan soldiers quickly try to resuscitate the mock patient, counting slowly as they force air down its throat.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: The U.S. will feed, clothe, and equip the fledgling Afghan commandos. They advise, organize and oversee the project. But it's the Afghans who take the lead in the training, teaching military skills, tactics and strategies.

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Dozens of commando recruits sit on a dirt patch, seeking shelter from the ferocious mid-day sun and listening intently to their Afghan trainer, who himself was trained in Jordan. The commandos wear green helmets and carry American-made M-4 assault rifles. Many have beards, which local custom allows. They come from all parts of the country, reflecting Afghanistan's vast ethnic make-up.

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: The trainer talks to his troops about their cordon and search exercise at a mock village nearby, and tells them about camouflage techniques. Many of the Afghan soldiers are already battle-hardened by the time they come to the commando camp. Command Sergeant Major Faiz Mohammed is 27-years-old. He's been in the army most of his adult life. He's also been shot seven times in combat. He's one of the commando recruits who has excelled. Soon, he'll be sent to the U.S. - first for English classes, then to Army Ranger School. Mohammed says the commando training program represents a new start for Afghanistan's army.

Command Sergeant Major FAIZ MOHAMMED (Afghan Army): Special Force guys teach me. He teach to fight, is the Special Force guys teach course of actions and everything. So we're ready.

NORTHAM: Once the Afghan commandos finish their initial training, they're assigned to a battalion of the National Army. But they soon rotate back into U.S. training camps for another six weeks to help them expand and sharpen their skills in courses like this mock ambush exercise.

(Soundbite of gun fire)

NORTHAM: By this point in their training, the Afghan commandos are considered operational. They regularly go out on missions with the U.S. Special Forces.

Unidentified Man #6: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #7: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Captain Hazarmee is the commander of the 2nd Commando Company on rotation at the base. He says his men are well prepared for any assault mission.

Captain HAZARMEE (Commander, 2nd Afghan Commando Company): (Through translator) We are here as a QRF, a Quick Reaction Force. We are doing operations in four different provinces around here. We can get ready in 20 to 25 minutes and can stop any kind of bad activities.

NORTHAM: The majority of the commandos who go out on assault missions now are Afghan. They outnumber the American Special Forces by about four to one. The 29-year-old U.S. detachment commander at this base is a Captain in the Green Berets. He says the Afghans have an inherent and invaluable knowledge of the terrain and the language.

Unidentified Man #8: I think that's why the commanders are so important, because again, they are Afghans. They understand the culture. They understand the country. They understand the history. They can interact with the population in a way that no outsider ever could.

NORTHAM: But they're also not ready to stand up on their own right now, says Colonel Mulholland, commander of all Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.

Col. MULHOLLAND: You need to feed them. You need to resupply them. You need to give them equipment. You need to give them mobility, cars, trucks, helicopters. There's a lot of pieces that we're missing here still.

NORTHAM: Somewhere down the line, its hoped the Afghan Commandos will be able to provide relief to U.S. Special Forces, which are feeling the strain from constant tours of duty in Afghanistan. But Mulholland predicts the American elite fighting force will be here for years to come.

Jackie Northam, NPR News in Eastern Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, NPR's Jackie Northam joins American and Afghan commandos on an air assault of a suspected Taliban hideout. It's the first time a journalist has accompanied a joint-special forces unit on a raid.

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