The use of special operations forces has been a contentious issue for Afghan leaders, who in recent years have been critical of "night raids," which Afghans say result in many civilian casualties. (Carmen Gentile / For USA Today)
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SHAH WALI KOT, Afghanistan — The helicopter landed shortly after dawn on a remote hilltop in Kandahar province.
A combined force of Navy SEALs and Afghan commandos poured out and crouched in defensive positions as the helo's rotor kicked up a bank of thick, impenetrable dust.
When the air cleared, the men peered into the distance for assailants. Seeing none, they headed on foot to a small village to look for what they came for: "high-value" members of the Taliban and caches of bombmaking material.
Special operations like these will be crucial to the future security in Afghanistan once conventional fighting forces pull back as ordered by President Obama, U.S. military leaders say. They will work with specially trained Afghans to prevent militants from gaining back territory won by the coalition.
Maj Gen. Tony Thomas is head of the recently created Special Operations Joint Task Forces Afghanistan (SOJTF-A), which aligns under one command all 23 NATO countries with special operations soldiers in Afghanistan. Forces from the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Australia now work together "for a potential long-term security strategy," Thomas says.
As NATO forces wind down their conventional troops, now down to about half of the 100,000 number of a year ago, the Pentagon believes that the most elite soldiers in the coalition will need to remain beyond the complete withdrawal scheduled for the end of 2014 to prevent a rollback.
"Nothing is absolute, but we anticipate being here for the long haul," says SOJTF-A spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Harrell, emphasizing that a longer-term presence of special operations forces "must first be discussed with the Afghan government."
U.S. special operations troops in Afghanistan include SEALs, the Army's Green Berets and other highly trained units. The use of special operations forces has been a contentious issue for Afghan leaders, who in recent years have been critical of "night raids," which Afghans say result in many civilian casualties.
Ministry of Defense spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi would not comment on the possible presence of special operations forces beyond 2014, though he says the current special operations missions are "good at fighting the insurgency as long as Afghans are in the lead.
On this mission, they are.
Afghan and U.S. troops walk single file along a barely visible footpath in hopes of avoiding buried mines, known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs. Earlier this year, a member of this SEAL team lost an eye when an IED detonated in a compound they were searching.
On this day, the troops find a few explosives. They place them outside the village and detonate them, and the blast is powerful enough that the soldiers are showered with small rocks even though they are hundreds of yards away.
No Taliban leaders are found. The SEALs know militant fighters are in the area from the Taliban radio chatter they are monitoring as they conduct their mission.
"Insurgents are saying they are trying to get together to attack us," says the SEAL team commander, a young lieutenant. The SEALs are permitted to talk to USA Today but are barred from identifying themselves — to maintain their secrecy and keep their families from risk of a terrorist attack.
"They talk a big game on the radio, but they probably won't do anything," he adds nonchalantly while his men keep a watchful eye for gunmen along the nearby river valley and their Afghan counterparts interview locals and search homes.
The SEALs have pegged the village a "facilitators' area," or a community that assists the Taliban, usually involuntarily.
A small collection of mud-brick compounds dot the sloping, scorched hills of this southern province where the Taliban movement began. Villagers tell the Afghan troops that there are Taliban in the area but have little information to give on their whereabouts.
"They (Taliban) threaten to cut off our heads and shoot us," says one man questioned by the commandos. "They tell us to ‘grab our weapons and fight with us.' "
Every SEAL mission is conducted with the Afghan commandos, notes Harrell, saying that the missions provide valuable training for Afghanistan's elite soldiers to one day shoulder alone all security responsibilities.
Capt. Ibrahim Sherzai, company commander for the Afghan commandos working with SEALs in Kandahar, agrees.
"For the commandos to improve, we need the Americans to keep helping us with our missions," Sherzai says.
He says his men are more than capable of "seeking out a target and destroying" targets on their own but often need the backup of the SEALs and their help training more recruits.
"I can't say for how long we'll need their help, but if you look at the situation in Afghanistan, we're going to need them here for a while," he says. "We need them to keep giving the commandos the best training they can."
The SEALs are considered perhaps the most versatile and well-trained force in the U.S. military. About 70 percent of applicants wash out before completing the more than year-long course that tests their physical and mental stamina.
"There are a lot of things we do in training designed to break you down," says a SEAL lieutenant.
He recalls long hours carrying a giant log with other SEAL candidates along a sandy beach and going days with little sleep. The exercises demand teamwork and help weed out weaker candidates.
"They induce physical stress to induce mental stress," he says. "The training is ultimately designed to find and mold guys that can handle it when the bullets start flying."
The SEALs trace their origins to 1942, when the U.S. military needed to improve its ability to defend beachheads and mount offensive operations in World War II. It created the Amphibious Scout and Raider School to train elite soldiers.
The SEALs were not formally conceived until two decades later when Arleigh Burke, former chief of naval operations, recommended to President Kennedy the creation of a counterinsurgency naval unit to conduct high-risk, small force missions in Vietnam that could perform in sea, air or land, hence SEALs.
Many experts say that special forces will need to remain a presence in Afghanistan to ensure the Afghans can maintain security for themselves.
Afghan commandos rely on coalition special operations forces not only for training and backup, but for transport and other logistical needs necessary to prevail in battle. Sherzai noted that Afghans are being trained to fly helicopters and operate other advanced equipment, but they still lack the resources to operate in remote parts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban is most prevalent.
"They still have some crippling logistics issues," says Maj. Fernando Lujan, a Green Beret who is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington.
The SEALs based here in Camp Simmons say they are up for the mission and want to ensure their Afghan comrades succeed.
A SEAL from this particular unit, whose mission was witnessed by USA Today, was killed a few days later in a crash of a Black Hawk helicopter. Seven American troops and four Afghans died in the crash.
The SEALs here know that the task they've been given means any mission they go on could be the one in which they die. Never letting one's guard down is one of the best ways to survive, they say.
"You've got to treat every compound you enter, every mission you go on, like there is someone there that is trying to kill you," says the petty officer.