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Commentary: A Ray of Hope -- Afghan Special Operations Forces

Afghanistan's best hope
Afghanistan's best hope
Eleven years after U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops first drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan, more questions than answers litter the landscape of a country that has been reeling under the burden of war for over 30 years. Most of those questions ask essentially the same thing: Is there any good news out of Afghanistan?

That question most often revolves around the state of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), comprised of three main groups: the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan Air Force (AAF), and the Afghan National Police (ANP). Critics charge that if the ANSF is not prepared to secure Afghanistan after the planned major drawdown of U.S. combat forces in 2014, then all of the blood and treasure poured into this country over the last several years was wasted.

Recent reports have certainly not been positive. Stories of mass attrition, low morale, and poor equipment among ANA rank-and-file call into question the ability of this force to fight the Taliban after the departure of foreign troops. Even ISAF’s own reporting on the progress of these forces is suspect -- mainly because the standards for success continue to change, attempting to meet the lowered expectations of ISAF senior leadership. But there is some cause for optimism in at least one of the Afghan armed services: special-operations forces (SOF).

Like every segment of the security forces here, Afghan SOF faces an uncertain future, a future made even murkier by the recent establishment of the Special Operations Joint Task Force -- Afghanistan (SOJTF-A), which brings all special-operations activities in Afghanistan under one Western command. But on the whole, Afghan SOF has proved to be more capable than the majority of other Afghan forces, which is cause for some optimism for the future of the country’s military services.

Any assessment of Afghan security forces begins with the “green-on-blue” or “insider” attacks. According to "The Wall St. Journal," since January 1, 2012, uniformed ANSF personnel have killed more ISAF troops than the Taliban -- 55 to 40. Such attacks against Western forces have been carried out by Afghan SOF, but only rarely. This speaks to the strength of the relationships built between Afghan forces and their Western (mainly U.S.) trainers, and also indicates that the screening process for these troops has been sufficiently rigorous to counter possible Taliban infiltration, which bodes well for the long-term stability of this fighting force.

Another reason to be hopeful for the future of Afghan SOF is its demonstrated ability to repel insurgent forces when necessary. That assessment is based not only on ISAF’s own reporting, but also on the Afghan response to the brazen Taliban attack on Kabul's diplomatic center in April of this year. It’s worth noting that Western advisers and support in the form of additional firepower and helicopter gunships were on the scene throughout the fighting, but it was Afghan SOF troops that directly engaged and repelled insurgents. This demonstrated not only the improved capabilities of these forces, but also showed the people of Afghanistan that their forces were there to protect them. That kind of confidence in the military is crucial to the future stability of post-withdrawal Afghanistan -- a population that believes it is secure is less likely to leave in search of a more stable future.

The final cause for optimism with regard to Afghan SOF is the previously referenced SOJTF-A. While I have some grave concerns about what the formation of that organization will do for the long-term sovereignty of the Afghan government in securing its own borders, as well as the sovereignty of the Afghan SOF at the operational level, it does indicate the development of post-2014 security commitments to Afghanistan by the United States. Viewed from the standpoint of the Afghan security forces, it’s a hopeful development.

As other mentoring support seems to be rushing headlong toward the exits, this joint task force is a welcome -- and maybe final -- attempt to bolster the numbers of the security forces. This has, in the past, been done without ensuring that those forces are truly ready to assume control of the country. But in the case of Afghan SOF, there now exists at a framework that could enable their long-term success in stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating the insurgency in the coming years.

It is unlikely that Afghan special-operations soldiers will ever achieve the level of operational proficiency exhibited by their Western advisers. But this is one of the few instances where “Afghan good enough” makes sense, and is not just an excuse for lowered standards of performance. If Afghan SOF can continue along its current path: a nonthreat to international advisers, capable in the face of the enemy, and a continued partnership with U.S. forces for the long term, there exists a strong likelihood of their success. In turn, those forces can be leveraged to train their conventional counterparts, duplicating that same success throughout the ANSF. What remains to be seen is what the future holds for these forces once funding from the international community is inevitably reduced. But -- for now -- there is some hope for at least one section of the Afghan security forces.

Gary Owen is a pseudonym for a U.S. Army veteran who has worked since 2009 as a civilian development worker in Afghanistan. He spent 21 months in Iraq on two different deployments, serving as an infantry officer in 2004, then as a civil affairs officer in 2008. He blogs regularly at It’s Always Sunny in Kabul, and is a regular contributor to the Afghan Analysts Network. When he’s not in Afghanistan, he and his wife call Texas home. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.