The first battalion of Afghan commandos trained by American Special Forces will graduate in Kabul this week.
Officials say this class of army commandos will be the best equipped yet to tackle insurgents who are increasingly using al-Qaida-style tactics to destabilize Afghanistan.
The commandos are part of a push by NATO countries to get Afghans to take charge of a war that experts say shows no signs of ending.
At a former al-Qaida training camp just outside of Kabul, Afghan soldiers fire volleys of blanks charge over sandy hills toward a crumbling building. Their target is a group of mock Taliban fighters with a stash of weapons and mound of fake heroin.
The simulated raid quickly melts into mass chaos. Once inside the building, everyone starts yelling. The soldiers in green berets fire at anything that moves, and many are unsure of where to go and what to do next.
A half-hour later, the exercise is over, and the trainees assemble for a review of their performance by a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers acting as mentors to the commandos-in-training.
The Afghan trainees hesitated before entering the premises, the U.S. team notes. They also failed to secure the building and ended up shooting at their own side.
Nevertheless, the Americans conclude the trainees did fairly well.
"With a little more time, a little more training, these guys will be pretty good, you know. Everything just takes time," says a Special Forces member who is not allowed to reveal his name.
Putting Afghans on the Frontlines
However, this group graduates tomorrow and will soon be handling missions that, since the fall of the Taliban, have fallen to the West to carry out.
With a growing resistance in some NATO countries to keeping soldiers in Afghanistan, the pressure is on to get the local army and police out in front in the war against insurgents and terrorists. That pressure is especially high these days, given a growing body count that could make this the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since 2001.
Experts say that putting more Afghan troops on the frontlines could ease what is perhaps the biggest obstacle for foreign troops in this war: ignorance of Afghan culture and customs.
Using Afghan troops eliminates the Taliban's ability to characterize their enemies as foreign invaders.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin, who for the past 18 months headed military training in Afghanistan, says the buildup of Afghan forces is in full swing.
"I won't speculate on a specific timeline that defines when what we call Afghan primacy will be in effect — when the Afghan national security forces will be in the lead and be able to effectively conduct counterinsurgency operations independently," Durbin says. "I will tell you that we have a program designed over the next 18 months to complete equipping and the training and the majority of facilities to build a 70,000-man Afghan National Army and an 82,000-man police force."
Many of the soon-to-be commandos believe that it will take four to five years for Afghan forces to be ready.
Trainee Capt. Abdul Mateen says Afghans desperately need Western help to rebuild their air force if they are going to beat the Taliban. He says Afghanistan's neighbors — in particular, Pakistan — must also be pressured by the international community to stop enemy fighters from pouring over the borders, though he admits that the three-month commando training is a major step.
The new weapons and equipment, such as the M-4 assault rifles, are an enormous improvement over the Kalashnikovs, according to Col. Fareed Ahmadi, the commando battalion commander.
"Actually, this was the dream of every Afghan soldier to have modern, good and capable equipment and weapons. My soldiers will conduct operations and do the job better than they did in the past," Ahmadi says.
Meanwhile, officials say American trainers will embed with the new commando battalion to ensure they are able to handle their new missions.