By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 15, 2013 – As U.S. and coalition conventional forces in Afghanistan prepare to draw down, the quiet professionals of the special operations community remain committed to a variety of missions there through the end of 2014 and beyond, the commander of U.S. and NATO special operations forces in Afghanistan said today.
Army Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas commands the Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan, a first-of-its-kind division-level headquarters that encompasses all in-country NATO special operations forces and assets. The command also is known as the NATO Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan.
Thomas briefed Pentagon reporters today via video from the Afghan capital of Kabul on the task force’s operations.
“Our mission set spans the entire spectrum of special operations … in a counterterrorist and a counterinsurgency environment, ranging from direct action to capacity- building,” Thomas said. “The latter entails not only operations with our Afghan [special operations forces] partners, who are 14,000 strong, but also the creation and transition of Afghan local police, currently numbering over 22,000 and authorized to grow to 30,000.”
Thomas explained the command numbers roughly 13,000 special operators and support people from 25 partner nations, and includes “every special operations organization in the United States inventory,” from Army Green Berets and Rangers to Navy SEALs and special operations Marines.
“Our Army and Air Force special operations elements are formed in a unified command, as well,” he said, “consisting of roughly 200 aircraft, ranging from fixed-wing lift assets to rotary-wing lift and attack platforms, as well as organic unmanned [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft], such as Predators and Reapers.”
The general said roughly 61 teams work with the Afghan local police program in village stability operations, and 50 additional teams partner with other Afghan security elements. Among those, he said, some 19 Afghan provincial response companies -- small police units deployed to selected provinces mostly in the south and east of Afghanistan -- include a team of NATO or U.S. special operators, sometimes both. And task force members also pair with Afghan commandos, whom Thomas likened to Rangers, and with 11 specialized night raid units partnered with his command’s strike elements.
Task force members will stay tactically partnered with their Afghan counterparts through the year, and then, depending on conditions, will look to step back into an enabling role, Thomas said.
At that point, Afghan forces “will go out independently on the ground, and we'll endeavor to conduct mission preparation for them, intelligence preparation, target preparation, et cetera, as well as providing enablers, things that they don't have in their inventory yet, such as fires, fire support, and ISR,” the general said.
Thomas said beyond 2014 and depending on a U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement and other negotiations, the task force will focus on helping Afghan forces integrate and master new organic capabilities.
“For instance, this year, we will provide them with ISR platforms … so that they'll be able to replace us in-kind over time, but that'll take some training that will probably extend past the '14 timeframe,” he said.
Those intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms will be unarmed and full-motion-video equipped, he said, and the coalition also is “looking to arm some of the special mission wing helicopters that the Afghans will have in their inventory.” Afghanistan plans a fleet of 30 MI-17 helicopters, “both an armed and a lift variety, and they'll be getting them in over the next couple of years, as well,” he noted.
In another year, the task force should be ready to turn to higher-level tasks, Thomas said.
“If we're good -- if we're really good at what we do -- and they demonstrate the necessary proficiency, we'll be able to step away over time and concentrate at their higher headquarters level, which has been built after the tactical units,” he said. Thomas noted that brigade-level headquarters are being established now, along with an Afghan army special operations division.
That division will own all of its ISR, helicopters and armored mobility vehicles, he said. “So it'll be quite a capable organization,” he added, “but it's just in its formative stages right now, and that's what we're focused on.”
It’s too soon to judge how many U.S. and coalition special operations forces Afghanistan might need beyond 2014, the general said in response to a question.
“We're prepared to provide as much special operations force training and equipping as they need, but the numbers are varied right now, depending on … the state of security at the time and truly their stated requirements,” Thomas said.
The general said he’s seen an “extraordinary trend” in the 11 months he has been in Afghanistan this time. He has been in Afghanistan part of every year since 2001, except for a year he spent in Iraq.
“When I first got here [on this tour], the mantra was, ‘We aren't winning, but we're leaving anyway,’” Thomas said. “And that was something we were fighting against, that we didn't seem to be on a positive trend line. … The time was coming in terms of the end of the ISAF mission.”
This year, the performance of the Afghan security forces and the “very positive” reaction from the people have shifted that trend, he said.
Counterinsurgency students, including himself, “talk often about the people being the center of gravity,” Thomas noted. “The people are voting in large numbers here. They're tired of the Taliban.”
The next step is up to the Afghan government, Thomas said.
“We are still looking for the government of Afghanistan to then deliver the rest of the goods of government that the people expect now,” he said. “In fact, everywhere I go, they'll tell me, ‘Security is good. We're now ready for jobs. We're now ready for education. We're now ready to advance.’ And that's what we're hoping is the next critical phase as Afghanistan moves forward.”