By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 16, 2013 – Afghan special operations forces and Afghan local police are taking on two distinct, but critical, missions during the transition from NATO to Afghan security responsibility in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. and NATO commander said yesterday.
Army Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas commands the Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan, with responsibility for all in-country U.S. and NATO special operations forces and assets. Thomas, speaking yesterday via video from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, briefed Pentagon reporters on the progress he’s seen in Afghan forces over the 11 months of his current deployment.
His task force works closely with both Afghanistan’s special operations forces and with Afghan local police, he noted.
Afghan special operations forces conduct dozens of operations around their country every day, Thomas said, noting the 14,000-strong force of army, special police and National Directorate of Security members who form Afghanistan’s special operations corps are divided among:
-- Nine U.S. Army Ranger-like commando kandaks, or battalions, which conduct high-end combat operations;
-- 11 specialized night raid elements, which are partnered with U.S. and NATO strike elements;
-- 19 provincial response companies he described as “SWAT-like elements who work directly for their local provincial leadership”; and
-- Specially trained counterterrorist units and several “exceptionally well-trained national special police units who have been mentored by the United Kingdom, Norwegians, and others for many years.”
All of those units “have been exceedingly busy over this past year,” Thomas said, “playing an integral role in the security of Afghanistan, especially the major population centers of Kabul and Kandahar.”
The general emphasized repeatedly that U.S. and NATO special operations forces no longer conduct any operations in Afghanistan without including Afghan forces. The highest-level mission special operators perform is hostage rescue, he said, and during a successful hostage rescue several months ago, “we had Afghan special operations forces on the ground with us.”
Thomas added all proposed operations are vetted and approved by a confederation of Afghan government officials.
“They literally have the up-down vote on whether we go out the door,” he said. “And, in fact, now they have … an Afghan prosecutor who provides us with the necessary warrants before we launch on an operation.”
That coordination is invaluable after operations, when Afghan officials can explain to local leaders what has happened, Thomas said.
“We were suffering for a long time with very successful operations, but the enemy beat us to the punch in terms of the information that was provided afterwards, usually wrong [or] misleading, but we didn't have a counterpunch,” he noted. “We weren't even playing in that arena. Now it's an even more effective effort, because it's Afghans calling out … and relating to them exactly what's transpired in their particular area, so that they're most informed after the fact.”
Thomas said over the past six months in Kabul, Afghan NDS units and allied partners have conducted more than 60 high-profile arrest operations, including the interdiction of a 26,455-pound truck bomb on the outskirts of the city, which resulted in five enemy fighters killed in action and two captured.
Some 10,000 insurgents have been removed from the field during operations on his watch, Thomas said -- more than 3,000 killed and about 6,000 detained. “And those were all with Afghan partner forces,” he added, “so [it has been] a pretty relentless tempo, and certainly one that doesn't give the enemy any respite.”
The cost to Afghan and coalition forces has been high, Thomas acknowledged.
“We have lost 53 of our cherished teammates over the past 11 months,” he said. “However, their sacrifice has steeled our resolve to win, and we win through our Afghan security partners, in the successful transition of security, in the successful political transition through their sovereign political process, and in the neutralization of the terrorist threat that brought us here in the beginning.”
Responding to a question on retention rates, Thomas noted that the Afghan special operators his task force members work with “are a pretty proud bunch.”
“They don't want to be coddled,” he added. “They do think that they are all the right stuff, in terms of the warrior capabilities to be the special operations forces for their country.”
Afghan commandos and other special operations formations aren’t seeing retention issues, the general said. He credited an established green-amber-red training cycle, in part, with keeping morale high.
“They are on a cycle which has a built-in break, so … [when] combat is on the schedule, they are going into operation and they know that they'll … be applied in the hardest possible scenarios,” he said. “But on the other cycles, they'll have a chance to recoup, take leave. They'll also have a chance to train as they come back into green cycle.”
Leaders are working to implement such a cycle in other Afghan forces, he said, but “they're almost in a relentless combat cycle, and it's breeding some of the retention challenges. But we are looking to fix that over time, and, again, the special operations example is applicable to the rest of the force. We just need to bring that into line.”
The Afghan special operations forces are “all in all … very competent tactical formations,” Thomas said. “Our focus over this next year and a half is to enhance their higher operational-level capability, specifically intelligence-gathering and target development, as well as command and control and, very importantly, logistics.”
Another challenge for Afghan forces is the need to plan for their own fires and air support capabilities, Thomas said.
“Hopefully not any time in the very near future, but over time, they will have to use their own organic howitzers [and] their own organic attack helicopters as a replacement for what we currently provide to them,” he said. “But they're coming to grips with that, and I think eventually they'll transition to that new development.”
Afghan special-mission wing helicopters and crews working with his task force have participated in missions “on a number of occasions and done so quite successfully, supporting both the police and the army, so it has really been a remarkable development,” Thomas said.
“In fact, their aviation capability eclipses many of the other organizations, many other nations we work with around the world,” he added. “It's a capability that's developed in quite a hurry, but they're demonstrating greater capacity every day.”
The general emphasized that Afghan-developed intelligence enabled “almost all” of the operations his task force has been part of for several months.
“This past month, we were able to interdict a 3,000-kilogram truck bomb in the far-off province of Farah, based on exceptional intelligence provided by the Afghan intelligence organization,” he said.
Thomas acknowledged the United States and its International Security Assistance Force partners have formidable intelligence capabilities. While NATO will provide Afghanistan airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities over the next few years, he said, “it won't be as extensive as what we have, but nor do I think they'll need that.”
Where Afghan forces outshine their partners is in their human intelligence capabilities, he added, which are “playing a huge role right now.”
“They live here,” Thomas noted. “They know the locals. … And they're able to provide us a form of intelligence and a quality of intelligence that, while over time [as] we've tried to conduct human operations or human intelligence operations, we pale in terms of what … they're able to do just innately.”
The general said when Afghan forces can “marry both the technical tools that we'll give them over time with their innate human capability, I think they'll be more than capable to understand the threat in their country and then address it accordingly.”
Turning to Afghan local police, Thomas noted the program, initially intended to be a temporary stop-gap to allow growing time for national army and police forces, has “since gone viral, in a good way.”
There are two reasons for that, he said: Afghan officials love it, and the Taliban hate it.
“Afghan political and security officials have embraced it as the best form of local security for many of the more troubled districts,” Thomas said. “ALP are performing as good or better than the army or police in contact with the enemy on almost every occasion, which stands to reason. They have been specially selected and trained locally to defend their turf.”
The Taliban have openly targeted the local police as their most dire threat, Thomas said. “Their Ulema council recently identified it as the formation which must be eliminated if the Taliban are to return to control in Afghanistan,” he added.
Thomas said the program’s growing success in some of Afghanistan’s most contested districts, along with some spontaneous anti-Taliban uprisings, are strong indicators of a popular shift against insurgents and toward government. The Afghan local police have become an integral part of the Ministry of Interior, which will have responsibility for the entire program by this time next year, he said.
Both Afghan special operations forces and the Afghan local police are filling critical roles, the general said.
“Especially as we enter into this historic year of Afghan lead in security operations,” he told reporters, “they are demonstrating every day their desire and capability to defeat the insurgency.”