David Axe is reporting from Afghanistan.
U.S. Special Forces and commandos from other nations are slated to remain in Afghanistan even after the coalition’s more than 100,000 conventional troops withdraw by the end of 2014. One of the Special Forces’ major responsibilities is training and leading Afghan police forces, widely seen as the first line of defense against Taliban infiltration.
One joint mission in Laghman Province in early February illustrates the relationship between Afghan cops and their international Special Forces advisers. A handful of U.S. and Romanian Special Forces led around 25 Afghan police from the Laghman Provincial Response Company on a mission to search houses in a valley outside the provincial capital of Mehtar Lam.
After sleeping on the ground through the freezing-cold night, the force broke into five elements, each led by a U.S. or Romanian commando. “B,” an American weapons sergeant, led his five Afghans into a blocking position to protect the troops searching the houses.
The Afghans’ morale couldn’t have been lower, B recalls. “They’re tired. And they’ve got terrible boots.” He decided to let the cops sleep an hour before continuing the mission. The nap made all the difference for the exhausted policemen. “It was like night and day,” B says.
B’s interpreter reported that he’d seen a man carrying a Rocket-Propelled Grenade. B had seen nothing, but took precautions anyway. He split off two of his cops for cover and led the rest in a maneuver meant to flank any Taliban fighters up ahead. Many international advisers are reluctant to turn their backs to their Afghan trainees, fearing the Afghans might attack them, but B says he trusts his cops “99.9 percent.”
Spotting three Taliban machine gun positions on high ground ahead of him, B ordered his policemen to halt. “I said, ‘Nope, we're not falling for that.” Their trap thwarted, the Taliban attacked. “A guy yells, ‘Allahu akbar!’ and starts shooting,” B recalls.
A bullet grazed B’s hand, slightly injuring him. He fired to keep one Taliban gunner’s head down, as the policemen suppressed the other two gunners. For five minutes the battle raged. Then U.S. aircraft arrived overhead, forcing the Taliban to flee.
B says he’s proud of his cops’ performance. “No one ran away. They all stood and fought.”
“It’s the way we integrate with the Afghans,” he explains. “They like me and they understand I’m putting myself out there, too.”