The Afghans that Fought
By Frank Sobchak
Since the disastrous fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, there have been a continuous series of reports that announce far-reaching observations and conclusions from the conflict. Two popular narratives are that cowardly Afghan forces collapsed with barely a shot fired and that the U.S. military is incapable of building an effective foreign partner force. On its face, each judgement would seem to have some threads of truth given the considerable debacle that played out over August 2021. But the reality is much more complex and requires nuance, something that is challenging in the current American political environment.
While there is little way to describe the overall effort as anything other than an abject failure, the U.S. did build several capable Afghan partner forces. The Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment created the KKA, commonly known as the Kta Khas, and elements of the U.S. intelligence community trained elite units for the National Directorate of Security, sometimes known as NDS Units or simply Unit 01 or 02. Both of those organizations were small but had solid reputations as capable and determined fighters. Because of their size, each no more than several hundred soldiers, their applicability to the discussion of building foreign armies is limited. The Afghan Commandos, however, totaled in the range of twenty to thirty thousand personnel: a force larger than the active-duty militaries of roughly seventy countries including Denmark and New Zealand. A discussion of their capabilities, therefore, yields more applicable lessons due to the scale of that effort.
The Commandos were built by the U.S. Army Special Forces, commonly known as the Green Berets, and designed as an elite light infantry force similar to U.S. Army Rangers. While selection of Commando candidates did not differ significantly from that of the average Afghan National Army soldier, each had an additional twelve weeks of training and were regularly partnered with small elements of Special Forces advisors. In practice the Commandos were frequently used as shock troops, shuttled from key battle to key battle, rather than used as special operations forces. While they were partnered with American elements, especially Special Forces teams, the Commandos usually fought and performed capably. The presence of critical U.S. enablers, such as air support, medical evacuation, and intelligence that went along with being partnered with Americans often stiffened the resolve of the Commandos to the point that they were generally a dependable partner.
They could fight at night, conduct limited internal sustainment, and hold their own against the Taliban. Through airframes and ground vehicles within the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, the Commandos could provide emergency resupply for their forces that enabled them to operate in combat for up to 72 hours. Some even could call in their own air support and conduct intelligence driven operations. Commandos suffered far more casualties than American forces, and their headquarters element even set up a wounded warrior program to allow injured fighters to be able to continue to serve in non-combat roles within the organization. A set of Special Forces officers and sergeants even attempted make the force capable of operating with minimal internal logistic support that was prepositioned at each of the Commando bases, such as “chuck wagon” style mobile feeding and mortars for fire support rather than aircraft. Unfortunately, senior leaders decided instead that the Commandos should operate inside a functional Afghan military logistics system for any operation that lasted more than 72 hours. That fatal flaw, building a force in our image logistically, proved to be the Commandos’ Achilles heel. American Army units are designed to function in a resource intensive logistics system which can provide just in time delivery of critical supply needs. Yet when faced with Afghanistan’s infrastructure challenges of few roads and vast distances, even our logistics system strained.
As the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and province after province fell, many Commando units continued fighting. Around Kandahar City, Commandos and other security forces battled the Taliban for more than a month. When the U.S. contracted logistics withdrew and the Afghan supply system collapsed, the Commandos were not able to perform as they were designed: supported by a heavy logistics footprint that could resupply them on demand. Commando elements began to run out of ammunition, food, and water. Some surrendered after extended sieges or battles, putting themselves at the mercy of the Taliban. At least one Commando unit was summarily executed, likely a warning by the Taliban to those who would similarly resist. Even after the fall of Kabul, several Commando units refused to give in and began the slow march to the Panjshir, where a nascent resistance to the Taliban was building. Other units moved to Hamid Karzai International airport and helped secure the outer perimeter during the U.S. led evacuation.
The Commandos provide many lessons for future conflicts and the ability of the U.S. military to build effective partner forces. Under the right conditions and with properly selected and trained advisors such as Special Forces, which hold developing foreign forces as central to their organizational identity, America can build effective foreign military forces. Consistency in advisor pairing across multiple rotations (even more so than tour lengths), low advisor to advisee ratios, and general language skills and cultural awareness are important conditions to such a process. When those are in place, the notion that the U.S. is incapable of successfully conducting advisory missions misses critical nuances. In the Commandos we built a light infantry force that fought competently as long as the conditions and context were maintained for which we prepared them. But when those conditions changed, even though many Commandos had the will to fight, they could not continue to resist without logistics support. Building forces in our own image, especially when the domestic logistics infrastructure will never be as capable, is a recipe for failure. We should be proud of the elite Afghan forces that we built over our longest war. They fought respectably and some have refused to give up even though the country to which they swore allegiance no longer exists.