Small Wars Journal

The Afghans that Fought

Thu, 09/23/2021 - 6:27am

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.    

About the Author(s)

Frank Sobchak (Colonel, Retired) is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Tufts University.  He holds a BS in Military History from West Point and a MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University.  During his twenty-six-year career in the U.S. Army, he served in various Special Forces assignments including leading teams and companies in 5th Special Forces Group advising foreign militaries and representing U.S. Special Operations Command as a congressional liaison.  His final assignments included garrison command (akin to being a mayor or city manager of an Army base) and leading the Army effort to publish an official history of the Iraq War.  That effort spanned five years and included the declassification of over 30,000 pages of documents and several hundred interviews in addition to having access to a similar sized set of documents and interviews that had not yet been released.  The project’s culmination resulted in the publication of the 1,500-page two volume set, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War.  He has been a frequent contributor to television, radio, and print interviews for topics such as Middle East security matters, defense reform, civil military relations, and special operations forces.   He is a contributor (Fellow) at the MirYam Institute and has been published in Newsweek, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, Defense One, The Hill, Small Wars Journal, and The Jewish News Syndicate.  His twitter handle is @abujeshua



Mon, 05/22/2023 - 9:09am

The passage highlights the complexity and nuances surrounding the Afghan conflict and the role of the US military in building effective partner forces. It challenges two popular narratives: the belief that Afghan forces collapsed without resistance and the notion that the US military is incapable of building foreign partner forces. While acknowledging the overall failure of the US effort in Afghanistan, the passage focuses on the capabilities and performance of the Afghan Commandos, a force built by the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets).

The Commandos, trained as elite light infantry similar to US Army Rangers, were regularly partnered with Special Forces advisors and often used as shock troops. They had additional training and benefited from critical US enablers such as air support, medical evacuation, and intelligence. The presence of these resources and the partnership with US forces bolstered their resolve and made them generally dependable in combat. The Commandos demonstrated the ability to fight at night, conduct limited internal sustainment, and hold their ground against the Taliban. They even had their own air support capabilities and conducted intelligence-driven operations.

However, despite their capabilities, the Commandos faced challenges due to the Afghan military logistics system. They were designed to be supported by a heavy logistics footprint, similar to the resource-intensive US logistics system, but Afghanistan's infrastructure limitations, such as few roads and vast distances, strained their logistics capabilities. As the security situation deteriorated and the Afghan supply system collapsed, many Commando units began running out of essential supplies, including ammunition, food, and water. Some surrendered or were summarily executed by the Taliban, while others continued to resist or joined the resistance in Panjshir or assisted with the evacuation efforts at the Kabul airport.

The passage emphasizes the lessons learned from the Commandos in terms of building effective partner forces and conducting advisory missions in future conflicts. It highlights the importance of consistent advisor pairing, low advisor to advisee ratios, language skills, and cultural awareness. The passage also argues against the notion of building forces in the image of the US military, especially when the domestic logistics infrastructure of the host country is not as capable. The failure to adapt to changing conditions and maintain critical logistics support proved to be the Commandos' Achilles heel.

Overall, the passage acknowledges the accomplishments and capabilities of the Afghan Commandos, highlighting their resilience and dedication in the face of challenging circumstances. It calls for a nuanced understanding of the Afghan conflict and rejects simplistic narratives surrounding the performance of Afghan forces and the US military's ability to build effective partner forces.

While the U.S. is capable of conducting successful advisory missions, it is essential to recognize that building forces solely in our own image without considering logistical support can lead to failure. Despite the challenges, the elite Afghan forces developed during the longest war fought admirably, showcasing their resilience even in a changed context.



Fri, 05/12/2023 - 10:05am

The article discusses the capabilities of the Afghan Commandos, a force of elite light infantry that was built by the US Army Special Forces to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Commandos were trained to operate similarly to the US Army Rangers and were regularly partnered with Special Forces advisors. The article highlights that the Commandos were used as shock troops and performed capably when partnered with American forces, mainly due to the presence of critical US enablers such as air support, medical evacuation, and intelligence. However, the Commandos could not sustain themselves internally for long without logistics support, and their reliance on the Afghan military's logistics system proved to be their Achilles heel. As the security situation deteriorated and the Taliban gained ground, the Commandos' performance suffered, and they were unable to resist without logistics support. The article concludes that the Commandos provide many lessons for future conflicts, and under the right conditions and with properly selected and trained advisors, the US military can build effective foreign military forces.


Thu, 08/18/2022 - 7:58am

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Hadji Murad

Thu, 09/23/2021 - 5:12pm

Col Sobchak,

Thank you for writing this article. We were speaking on the phone to many leaders who were fighting in the Kunar. No unit, no matter how well-trained, can conduct sustain combat operations without re-supply of the basic combat necessities. The units in Kunar that could and did fight were quickly surrounded - both physically and psychologically. Not all Afghan forces folded - some were left with only one choice - live for something or die for nothing. In the end, too many and too widespread capitulations took place. Nothing for the fighters to fight for. Brave men were everywhere in those units. Again, thank you.

Jim Gant