One of the key elements of the Afghan government’s Road Map for pushing back the insurgency is increasing the fighting capabilities of Afghan government forces. This includes the expansion of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) praised special operations forces.
Says Jacob Jason Demedici: “ The Afghan battel theatre has evolved since 2003 into a special operations dominated warfare zone, without those the military progress could never have been achieved. The striking dominance of black operations over traditional green operations is a first in the history of warfare.”
Says Jacob Jason Demedici: “It is clear that the Taliban are getting monetary, logistical and military support from the neighbouring countries Pakistan and Iran. SOF (Special forces Operations) operators risk their lives for cutting off the head of the proverbal hydra snake – Taliban commander and facilitators that is – only to see appear replacement sometimes literally within days, sometimes within weeks.
As long as those supply routes are not cut off the military cannot hold the ground it gained in Afghanistan. The issue is known to all US presidents resp Canadian prime ministers, which have dealt with the Afghan war, but decisive action against the hostilities from Pakistan, supposedly an ally, and Iran, a long-time foe, never have been taken.”
However, this expansion is spurring already existing tendencies that are turning these units into shock troops, rather than actual special forces. Moreover, such a focus on shock troops concentrates efforts on capturing territory from the insurgency, rather than addressing the more pressing problem – which is holding cleared areas. AAN guest author and former SOF operator Dr. Jacob Jason Demedici illustrates these and other questions by taking a closer look at the ANA’s special operations forces and the plan to expand them.
When the conventional forces of the Afghan state cannot cope with insurgents on the battlefield, they usually call in units of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC) for support. These units are often referred to as ‘Commandos’. Compared to conventional troops, they are superior forces that usually manage to defeat insurgents or at least push them back. Because of this high demand for the ANASOC, the Afghan government, supported by its allies, is now doubling the number of these forces. By doing so, it hopes also to double their success. Taking a closer look reveals, though, that this will probably not be done that easily and will take the ANASOC even further away from its original mission – to conduct actual special operations.
The intended expansion of the ANASOC has to be seen against the backdrop of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) (1) Road Map, as laid out in a report by the US Department of Defense (US DoD) to US Congress in June 2017. The Road Map is an official Afghan policy document, although it can be assumed that the NATO-led coalition and especially the United States military provided support in developing it (see AAN’s previous analysis here). According to unclassified documents of the NATO-led coalition seen by the author, the Road Map envisions breaking what it sees as a stalemate between Afghan government forces and the insurgency; extending security, with the goal of securing control over what is seen as a critical mass of 80 per cent of the Afghan population; and “expand[ing] governance and economic development and compel[ling] or incentiviz[ing] Taliban reconciliation.” Hence, the Road Map does not hope to defeat the insurgency, but rather to tilt the war in favour of the government.
The Road Map has four key elements: (i) leadership development; (ii) countering corruption; (iii) increasing fighting capabilities by expanding the Afghan Special Security Forces (of which the ANASOC makes up the lion’s share, but there are also other units) (2) and the Afghan Air Force; and (iv) improving unity of command and effort.
With respect to the Road Map, it is imperative to keep in mind that neither the Afghan government or the coalition backing it is expecting the plan to lead to any major changes on the battlefield in the near future. On the contrary, the plan is to “realign” Afghan government forces in 2017 (3) (this phase is dubbed “build momentum”) and to “continue building offensive capability… while disrupting insurgent strongholds” in 2018 (dubbed “seize the initiative”). This is meant to set the conditions for “execut[ing] large-scale offensive operations in 2019” (dubbed “exploit the initiative”) and finally, in 2020, to consolidate the hoped for gains.
The latest quarterly report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) citing US Forces-Afghanistan notes, though, that “[w]hile [Afghan] President Ghani has put the execution of the strategy within a four-year time frame, its actual implementation will be conditions-based, rather than time-driven” (this mirrors the new US stance on Afghanistan – see US President Trump’s speech here and AAN analysis here). “Conditions-based” in this context apparently means that the intended “large-scale offensive operations” will be executed once the ground and the troops have been fully prepared, rather than according to a rigid timetable – ie if realigning the force, building offensive capabilities and disrupting insurgent strongholds should take longer than originally planned, this would cause a delay in executing the large-scale operations.
In any event, the ANASOC is set to play the crucial role in “disrupting insurgent strongholds” and carrying out “offensive operations.”
From division to corps
The ANASOC was reported to have been established as an independent division (called ferqa-ye amaliatha-ye khas) of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in 2011 and officially upgraded to a corps (qul-e urdu-ye amaliatha-ye khas) on 20 August 2017 (see press release here). According to Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Qayum Nuristani, ANASOC Public Affairs Officer, this upgrade will entail roughly a doubling of its strength from about 11,300 to 23,300 personnel. This expansion of personnel and units will – due to the need of recruitment, training and the establishment of completely new units, while at the same time maintaining enough troops as a fighting force in the field – take years. According to a spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Defence (quoted here), completion of the expansion was initially planned for 2020, but a coalition source told AAN it would need more time.
This expansion will, according to the US DoD report quoted above, not augment the authorised end-strength (4) of the ANSF, as “[t]he manpower required for the ANASOC growth will come from realigning tashkil (5) positions from conventional forces.” In other words: conventional ANA forces will be reassigned to the ANASOC, and their number will decrease by the same amount as the ANASOC troops will rise.
While the ANASOC usually recruits its members directly from ANA training centres, Nuristani explained that the currently-planned, rapid expansion will mainly be facilitated by reassigning the two Mobile Strike Force Vehicle Brigades (lewa-ye zarbati) – one based in Kabul, one in Kandahar – to the ANASOC. These two brigades consist of seven Mobile Strike Force Vehicle kandaks(battalions). According to the US DoD, they are also set to provide the ANASOC with their own armoured ground assault vehicles and make them more self-sufficient. (So far, the ANASOC did not have such mechanised assets in their own units.) (6) (The possible impact of reassigning those two Mobile Strike Force Vehicle Brigades will be addressed in more detail later in the text.)
Nuristani also stated that the Special Mission Wing (lewa-ye 777 hawayi) will be incorporated into the expanded ANASOC corps. (Given that this concerns air assets, this will not be further addressed in this analysis which concentrates on ANASOC ground forces.)
According to the US DoD June 2017 report, “[t]he ANASOC’s mission is to increase the Afghan Government’s ability to conduct counterinsurgency and stability operations, and, as directed, execute special operations against terrorist and insurgent networks in coordination with other [ANSF] pillars.” (7)
An elite group of Afghan National Army commandos graduated to become the first Afghan Special Forces during a ceremony at Camp Morehead May 13, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sarah Brown/RELEASED)
The centre-piece of special operations are direct actions which are commonly referred to as ‘raids’. Their characteristics – short duration, small scale and the fact that they are conducted in “denied” areas (ie not on a clear battlefield) and often behind enemy lines – set them apart from conventional operations. Another example of special operations is reconnaissance in denied areas.(8) Yet another type of special operations are “internal defence missions” that are aimed at countering an insurgency at the level of ‘tribe’ or village; hence, such missions are at the same time counterinsurgency and stability operations. For example, in what the US military calls Village Stability Operations (VSO), special forces are assigned to support village leaders and train village defence units of the Afghan Local Police. (9)
This, at least, was the original idea behind the ANASOC. However, the ANASOC has strayed away from this original mission.
Misuse and changing mission
There are consistent reports about ANASOC forces being used outside the initially intended mission, as described above. For example, the June 2017 US DoD report previously quoted states that “the [Afghan Special Security Forces; of which the ANASOC is the main part] frequently is used as the offensive arm of the [ANSF] and tends to suffer misuse by conventional forces…,” even going as far as “employing [Afghan Special Security Forces] at checkpoints or as personal security detachments.” Nuristani partly acknowledged this, saying that ANASOC forces often support conventional ANA units to retake lost territory or fight especially resilient insurgents.
What this use of the ANASOC means is that it has, in practice, become a ‘shock’ rather than a special force – ie a force to boost the offensive capabilities of conventional forces in conventional operations, rather than one that conducts highly specialised, small-scale operations in terrain that conventional forces cannot reach (see also this media report). (10) Not only this. A SIGAR reportnoted that “[a]s of early 2017, the [Afghan Special Security Forces] conducted 80% of all the ANA’s offensive operations.” This means that the ANASOC, despite being just a small fraction of the conventional ANA forces, has not only become a shock force, but the primary offensive force, bearing the brunt of the fight against the insurgency – although this would clearly be the mission of the ANA’s conventional forces.
The same SIGAR report, dated 30 April 2017, claims that misuse of Afghan Special Security Forces has become “mostly regionally isolated” and that “[w]hile there are still notable repeat offenders, the vast majority of [Afghan Special Security Forces] misuse has significantly decreased.”
However, the already-mentioned June 2017 US DoD report rather suggests a change of the ANASOC’s mission away from the initially envisioned special operations to a shock force than preventing such originally non-intended use. The report states, “[t]he [ANSF] Road Map contains plans to… establish the [Afghan Special Security Forces] as the primary offensive maneuver force within the [ANSF], while the conventional forces become the primary option for consolidating gains and holding key terrain and infrastructure” – with a “primary offensive maneuver force” by definition conducting conventional, and not special operations. (11)
At the same time, there are efforts to at least curb the most blatant misuse of special operations forces, such as employing them at checkpoints or as personal security detachments. According to Nuristani, ANASOC forces are already now not used anymore as personal security detachments (this could neither be verified or disproved). He acknowledged though that it would sometimes still be necessary for ANASOC forces to remain in the field to hold an area, but insisted this would not be permanent.
Given the fact that the Afghan Ministry of Defence frequently emphasises the conducting of night operations and that there will also be a need for certain other special operations, the ANASOC will not become solely a shock force, but will continue to conduct certain special operations. This was confirmed by an ANASOC officer, who, however, clarified that special operations such as night raids are rather rare and that the vast majority of ANASOC operations are aimed at retaking territory lost to the insurgency or to support conventional forces in other conventional operations. Hence, special operations are on the fringes of the ANASOC mission and not at its centre, as one would expect with what are called special operations forces.
In this regard, one could argue that – while the existence of a shock force itself is positive – the blurring of conventional and unconventional missions is not advisable, as (unconventional) special operations are (as set out above) completely different from conventional operations and require different units and capabilities.
Order of Battle
The issues raised above are further obfuscated by questions regarding the ANASOC’s order of battle (ie its organisation and command structure). To understand these problems, one has to first grasp the general ANASOC order of battle though.
According to official documents, the ANASOC so far consisted of two Special Operations Brigades (lewa-ye amaliatha-ye khas), one made up of four and the other of five Special Operations Kandaks(battalions) (SOKs) (kandak-e amaliatha-ye khas/commando) that were aligned with regional ANA Corps. The US DoD stated in its June 2017 report already quoted above that “[t]he SOKs are the primary tactical elements of the ANASOC, and they conduct elite, light-infantry operations against threat networks in support of the regional corps’ counterinsurgency operations and provide a strategic response capability against strategic targets.” SOKs are also referred to as Commando Kandaks, as they are (at least largely) made up of special soldiers that are called Commandos (more on this below). An additional, separate Special Operations Kandak, the 6th SOK based in Kabul, functioned “as the ANA’s national mission unit,” providing “the President of Afghanistan and the [Chief of ANA Staff] with a rapidly deployable special operations force able to respond to national-level crises throughout Afghanistan.” (12)
The current plan, as confirmed by Nuristani, foresees the expansion of the ANASOC with two additional Special Operations Brigades (raising the total to four such brigades) and the so-called National Mission Brigade (lewa-ye wazayef-e khas-e melli). Asked how many additional SOKs this would encompass, Nuristani refrained from giving a specific number, but said that it might amount to even more than the doubling of the current ten SOKs. (13)
The four Special Operation Brigades will be – similar to the so far nine common SOKs – “regionally oriented, [but] centrally controlled,” a coalition source explained. This suggests that ANA Corps commanders will, as so far, have to request ANASOC assistance, upon which the Chief of Army Staff or ANASOC HQ will decide and, if approved, give the regionally stationed Special Operations Brigades their respective orders.
The National Mission Brigade was inaugurated on 31 July 2017 and will take over the role of the 6th SOK. According to the June 2017 US DoD report, it has already reached initial operational capability and is scheduled to reach full operational capability in March 2018. The same report also stated that the National Mission Brigade “and associated headquarters element will consist of elements of the ANA 6th SOK and the [Qeta-ye Khas].” The Qeta-ye Khas (Special Forces in Dari; transcribed as Ktah Khas by the US Department of Defense) is (or rather was) a small special forces unit that existed in addition to the Commandos, that make up the vast majority of the ANASOC’s fighting force. While in theory and (at least initially) also in practice there was a crucial difference between Commandos and Qeta-ye Khas, this difference is far from clear anymore.
Commandos and Qeta-ye Khas – and the confusion surrounding them
The Qeta-ye Khas was, as reported here, originally a separate unit consisting of several teams modelled after the US Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, informally called A-teams. (14) As of spring 2015, there were 72 Afghan A-teams, according to a Qeta-ye Khas member quoted by a specialised publication. (15) Assuming the US model of 15 persons per A-team, this would amount to 1,080 personnel. The June 2017 US DoD report indicates a somewhat higher number though, stating that the Qeta-ye Khas comprises 1,190 personnel out of an authorised end-strength of 1,291. (This number might include supporting personnel and not necessarily means that the number of Afghan A-teams had changed by that time.)
The original plan was that such Qeta-ye Khas A-teams conduct various special operations – particularly direct actions and special reconnaissance. This was also what set the Qeta-ye Khasapart from the other special operation forces, the Commandos, that were solely meant for direct actions (see here). In this regard, the Qeta-ye Khas would usually conduct the more special and covert direct actions (for example targeting high-value insurgents in more inaccessible terrain) than the Commandos. (16)
However, at some point that could not be determined, the Qeta-ye Khas was integrated into the ANASOC. How this was exactly done and what its current status is, is also hard to determine. But it is relevant as it directly affects the way the ANASOC is able to conduct missions – ie whether it still retains small special forces teams for special operations or whether it rather turned into a unit of Commandos that was initially intended for more overt raids, but has become a shock force.
According to Nuristani, the Qeta-ye Khas is now fully integrated into the National Mission Brigade and has been transformed into a SOK that does not differ from other SOKs, neither in mission nor training. Nuristani was very clear about this, stating that Qeta-ye Khas and the Commandos are one and the same thing. He even used the terms interchangeably or in combination (Qeta-ye Khas Commando). He asserted, though, that the Commandos (including the former Qeta-ye Khas) would be able to provide shock forces and conduct special operations at the same time.
However, an ANASOC officer who requested anonymity explained matters slightly differently. He also confirmed that the former Qeta-ye Khas has indeed been completely absorbed by the ANASOC/Commandos and does not have a separate name anymore. The officer explained though that each SOK has – besides several companies (tolay) of regular Commandos – one “special” company. These “special” companies conduct the actual special operations, usually in small teams (apparently A-teams), while the bulk of the Commandos are used as shock forces (this source, like Nuristani, described the use as shock force – contrary to a western understanding – as special operations, adding that Commando operations, at least in theory, do not exceed 72 hours). The source also insisted that these special forces would – compared to other Commandos – receive additional and separate training as had been the case for the former Qeta-ye Khas (as of now, those special companies are probably made up of the former Qeta-ye Khas). This is seemingly supported by the June 2017 US DoD report which reads that “each SOK contains eight ANA Special Forces teams.”
However, adding to the confusion, the exact same US DoD report states at another point that “[t]he [Qeta-ye Khas] is a light infantry SOK consisting of three operational companies, a training company, an engineer company, a military intelligence company, a support company, and a headquarters company,” which would suggest a separate unit. Such a separate Qeta-ye Khas unit was also displayed in official documents seen by this author in July 2017. Furthermore, in a press conference held in Kabul on 24 August 2017 – after the official inauguration of the National Mission Brigade on 31 July 2017 that allegedly definitively absorbed the Qeta-ye Khas into the ANASOC/Commandos – US Army General John W. Nicholson, commander of US Forces–Afghanistan and the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, referred to “commandos and [Qeta-ye Khas]”, implying two separate types of forces. Even more tangibly, at the mentioned official inauguration of the National Mission Brigade, the (former) Qeta-ye Khas still wore their uniforms and sand-coloured berets that distinguished them from the Commandos who wear slightly different camouflage and burgundy red berets.
While none of the above accounts could be definitively verified, in this author’s assessment, the most likely variant is that the former Qeta-ye Khas has indeed been integrated into SOKs, but still exists as special companies that often (but probably not always) conduct independent missions.
In any event, the confusion regarding the Qeta-ye Khas adds to the blurring of the use of ANASOC forces for special operations and as a shock force. While this does not necessarily have to impair the ANASOC’s ability to conduct special operations, it certainly has the potential to do so, as we will see.
What does all this mean for the battlefield?
Given the ANASOC’s successful track record (17), it can be expected that its expansion will, as planned, indeed increase the ANSF’s fighting capabilities and bolster their offensive prowess.
Some argue though that this expansion could cause a decrease of the ANASOC’s quality. For example, a Washington Post article warned that “[r]apidly growing the elite forces could also dilute the commando units to a point where they are indistinguishable from regular units, suffering the same issues with discipline and morale while increasing the threat of insider attacks.” While the intended rapid growth and the above displayed confusion about the status of the Qeta-ye Khasindeed carries the danger of a decrease in quality, it seems unlikely that this will be as dramatic as stated in the article. This is mainly due to the fact that the ANASOC training centre (the ANASOC School of Excellence) will also be expanded and that, according to a coalition source, the expected increase of foreign advisors will specifically include special forces trainers. This means that ANASOC forces will still receive – compared to regular units – better training, ensuring that they keep their edge over conventional forces. Even so, a certain decrease in quality cannot be ruled out completely.
ANASOC National Mission Brigade inauguration at 31 July 2017. Photo: Jacob Jason Demedici.
The more significant danger is that the ANASOC might loose part of its ability to conduct special operations and further drift into becoming a mere shock force. In fact, a former Commando and current regular ANA officer told this author in August 2017 that the (former) Qeta-ye Khas mostly, if not always, supports the Commandos in missions that are even difficult for the Commandos – ie implying that the (former) Qeta-ye Khas has slid into a similar role in relation to the Commandos as the Commandos play for conventional forces. This could not be verified; however, there have been similar allegations in the past. (18)
Another, probably more crucial question is, whether the improvement of offensive capabilities will lead to the intended extension of government control throughout the country. In this context, one could argue that defeating insurgents in offensive operations – which will be the main, if not sole objective of the expanded ANASOC Corps – was never the main problem of the ANSF, as experience shows that insurgents were and still are unable to withstand concentrated government efforts, if and when mounted. The main problem is rather that the ANSF fail at holding and securing areas after they have been taken or re-taken, giving insurgents that melt away when facing a superior force like the ANASOC the opportunity to re-infiltrate such areas later.
While not clearly articulated, the intention of the Afghan government and its international backers seems to be that relieving conventional forces of bearing the brunt of the fighting by making an expanded ANASOC the “primary offensive maneuver force” will enable conventional forces to successfully hold and secure cleared terrain. This, however, might be a fallacy.
First of all, although freeing up conventional forces from fighting will give them more time to concentrate on holding territory, without specific efforts to hold terrain and train conventional forces accordingly, this might remain a significant problem. And at least to this author’s knowledge, the focus is on increasing offensive capabilities like the ANASOC; this holds true despite recent reports (here and, by AAN, here) about the intended establishment of an additional holding force, as such plans are still in an early stage and remain unclear (see also endnote 11). In any event, Nuristani was – even before reports of plans for such a holding force were published – confident that holding areas would not be a problem, although he acknowledged that in war, there was always the possibility of losing territory again.
Secondly, this could be exacerbated by what military historian Roger Beaumont called the “selection-destruction” cycle. (19) This concept is based on the fact that the best available personnel are selected for elite units, which do have a higher casualty rate due to their missions involving disproportionally intense combat (for the Afghan Commandos, the above mentioned ANASOC officer confirmed a high casualty rate). This, however, leads to “the overall effect… to select and then destroy the talent within a force under pressure,” according to counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen. (20) However, even if the selected personnel in the elite units are not killed, their mere selection “makes high quality leadership less available for conventional units” (see endnote 19). In the current case of the ANSF, this could mean that – in order to satisfy the need of the rapidly expanding ANASOC – conventional forces might be drained of their best personnel. This, in turn, may cause a decline in quality of such conventional forces. (It is also noteworthy that the source text quoting Beaumont (endnote 19) clearly states that “conventional units… must carry the bulk of the fighting load,” thereby reinforcing the above-mentioned argument that special operations forces like the ANASOC are not meant to be the “primary offensive maneuver force”.)
Such a potential degrading of conventional forces might be mitigated though. As mentioned, the growth of the ANASOC will be mainly facilitated by reassigning the existing two Mobile Strike Force Vehicle Brigades to the ANASOC. These two brigades were, according to Nuristani, already so far independent – ie not part of any regional ANA Corps. This consequentially means that the conventional regional ANA Corps will not be significantly drained of personnel or otherwise negatively affected by the growth of the ANASOC. In this context, Nuristani also dispelled concerns that – due to the rapid expansion – the ANASOC might be forced to take on recruits that do not adhere to the same high standards as before, pointing out that the Mobile Strike Force Vehicle Brigades already consist of selected personnel that would match the high requirements of the ANASOC.
Furthermore, given that the Mobile Strike Force Vehicle Brigades have apparently not been effectively used so far, transferring them to the ANASOC will probably have less of an impact on the conventional forces than one might think at first sight. An earlier US DoD report, published in June 2016, stated that the Mobile Strike Force Vehicle Brigades “are often used in defensive operations or employed in static positions, which hinders their intended use as an offensive maneuver capability.” And given that the coalition is in any event pressuring Afghan forces to abandon static positions, the so far defensively or statically used Mobile Strike Forces Vehicle Brigades would have probably been realigned to other missions, even if there were not to transition to the ANASOC.
Whether and to what extent transitioning those forces’ armoured vehicles (see endnote 6) to the ANASOC will have a significant impact on the performance of the ANASOC, remains to be seen. Nuristani stated though that the intention is to pair every two (infantry) SOKs with one Mobile Strike Force Vehicle Kandak (kandak-e zarbati), adding that the ANASOC was in need of such mechanised assets.
Conclusion: an improvement or a dilution of tasks and quality?
The roughly doubling of the ANASOC paired with its good track record will certainly increase the fighting capability of the ANSF. However, the expansion seems to spur already existing tendencies that have turned the ANASOC more into a conventional shock force rather than an actual special operations force. While a shock force is – given that the insurgency has become more aggressive in the past years – in itself a useful and maybe even necessary asset, it could be argued that this should not be done at the expense of special operations and that a clear separation of shock and special forces would be advisable. More critically, it could even be said that making the ANASOC not only a shock, but the “primary offensive maneuver force” of the ANSF, simply circumvents the actual problem that conventional ANA forces are apparently not up to their main task, which would be bearing the brunt of the fight, in both, offensive operations to wrestle territory back from the insurgency and defensive operations to hold captured areas.
In addition, as overcoming insurgents in concentrated efforts has never been a significant issue for the ANSF, it could be contended that the expansion of the ANASOC fixes something that is not broken, while the real issue – successfully holding cleared areas – has apparently not been adequately addressed (however, see the mentioned, so far unclear plans for a new holding force ). Given that the expansion of the ANASOC will allow conventional ANA forces to mainly concentrate on holding terrain and if a separate holding force is indeed established, the hold aspect might nonetheless improve. This, however, has to be proven first and might turn out to be a mirage.