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Afghan special forces in Helmand face uncertain future

Jun. 17, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Medical evacuation
With Afghan commandos more autonomous, and the drawdown in Helmand province, the footprint for MARSOC is shifting slowly to training and oversight. (Sgt. Teddy Wade/CJSOTF-A)
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CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN — During a recent special operations mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Afghan National Army commandos and members of its Operational Detachment-Alpha found themselves locked in intense combat with enemy fighters for 12 long hours.

When three of the troops were wounded during during the fighting, the U.S. special operations team monitoring the mission contacted the Afghan operators, offering to medevac the fallen.

“No,” said the unit commander. “we must do this ourselves.”

Moments like that are what convince Lt. Col. Jody Lynch, commander of MARSOC’s 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, that the elite Afghan troops his unit has trained have what it takes to sustain themselves in coming years. However, he said, the commandos will still need support from American special operations forces after 2014 to ensure their success.

The Afghan commandos and ODAs are not the peers of American Navy SEALs or MARSOC operators, but their specialized training—including advanced infantry tactical skills and indirect fire courses, as well as mentorship and training by U.S. Special Forces--gives them a similar capability to Army Rangers or infantry Marines, Lynch said. And that makes them a kind of secret weapon for the Afghan military.

“What we see is, they’re very depended upon to take an offensive mindset to take an offensive approach to bring security to different areas,” Lynch said. “As they begin to operate, other units are quick to operate as well. They’re kind of an igniter to bring a lot of confidence to the way operations are going within the battlespace.”

1st MSOB, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., has been deployed to Camp Leatherneck since February, working with Afghan operators in three different special operations kandaks, or battalions, in Helmand and Herat provinces and the Shindand district, all under the Afghan 2nd Special Operations Brigade. Long gone are the days of MARSOC night missions in rural regions of the country, and village stability operations ended last year. Now, the American operators spend their time providing security in provincial centers and helping the units they mentor build relationships with local governments. The kandaks still rely on 1st MSOB for some assistance with intelligence gathering and sometimes with air support, but Lynch said said he and his Marines feel increasingly unnecessary on the battlefield.

That’s a huge change, he said, from his first time partnered with a commando kandak in 2004, when Americans had to provide all the equipment and logistical support, and the MARSOC operators resorted to training the inexperienced commandos while they carried out missions.

Still, Lynch said, there’s work to do, and not enough time to do it before the official close of combat operations at the end of this year. He’d like to see the battalions he mentors develop stronger intelligence capabilities, and unit logistics—a weak point for many Afghan military units—still need to improve.

How MARSOC can continue to build those skills after 2014 remains a big unknown. President Obama recently announced that an American contingency force would remain until 2016 to assist the Afghan military, but none of those troops will be stationed in Helmand or Herat. Lynch said military leaders were studying ways to support the young special operations units, and he said he was still confident they’d find some way to do that.

“At the beginning of Resolute Support mission, currently there is not a MARSOC unit assigned,” Lynch said. “However, anything could change.”

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