WASHER DISTRICT, Afghanistan - Ticking Away.
The sun has yet to rise over the horizon, and the night’s chill has a solid grasp on the air.
From behind the mountains, a yellow glow shines down on a group of Afghan commandos as they wait to go on their unit’s first independent helicopter assault mission on March 10.
The soldiers know that there is not much time left before they are on their own and the success of the day’s mission in Helmand province’s Washer district lies on their shoulders. And though there won’t be any coalition forces to go with them, the commandos wait, telling each other jokes, before heading off to fight the insurgency at dawn.
“Time is very important with this kind of operation,” said Capt. Halid, commander of 3rd Commando Company, 7th Special Operations Kandak. “This [operation] will lead to even greater things for the kandak,” he explained when asked later about how he and his men felt facing this responsibility.
Two MI-17 helicopters sending telltale sounds of powerful engines and rotating blades appear from the southeast as officers and their sergeants immediately begin to assemble their men. Straps holding helmets are tightened, rucksacks are thrown over shoulders and weapons are checked one more time.
The helicopters, flown by Afghan Air Force pilots, land just fifty meters from where the commandos stand ready. Sand and cold air blasts the men as leaders shout commands over the machines’ twin-turbine roars.
The soldiers run to board the aircraft and soon they lift off and begin their charge.
Preparing For What They Can
Afghan Special Forces and commandos are readying themselves for the future of counter-insurgency operations in their country. This means finding and overcoming new logistical problems as time goes on.
In Helmand, the two helicopters will be responsible for a lot of things, said Lt. Col. Mohammed Zeibiullah, 7th SOK commander. They will need to do most of the evacuations, operations, and transportation of soldiers back and forth.
The year’s end is less than nine months away, and with it comes sole responsibility for fighting an insurgency that has refused to let Afghanistan grow as a country. Nevertheless, Afghan special operations commanders and their soldiers aren’t putting off what they can do now until later.
“We are ready! We are trained, we have weapons, and we have everything we need for independent operations,” said Zeibiullah, explaining that the 7th SOK has already successfully completed many Afghan planned and operated missions.
And the Afghans will fight the insurgency in their own way, with their own equipment.
This mission was different, said Halid, the young company commander in charge of the day’s mission. In the past, the commandos were transported with U.S. helicopters and pilots. But today, they are using Afghan aircraft flown by fellow Afghans.
“Afghan helicopters are different,” he said. And the commandos know they will have to adapt to some technological differences.
“Yes, there are big gaps between the [American and Afghan helicopters],” explained Zeibiullah. However, the commandos understand these gaps and they train and work hard to overcome obstacles such as these.
“The people of Afghanistan [and its soldiers], are committed to fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan,” said Halid. “[That is why] they volunteered to come to the army. They want to serve their country; they want to fight their enemy. Whatever we have, we will [use to] continue fighting against the bad people in Afghanistan.”
And training is the key.
Training to secure landing zones, proper medical evacuation training, and quick reaction force training are shaping these soldiers into a fighting force ready to demonstrate its independence.
Trusting One Another
The young company commander understands the importance of the people trusting their forces and wants Afghan citizens to know that the commandos are capable of protecting them.
He knows that there are rumors and misconceptions about Afghan forces’ ability to fight armed militants and criminals. And he’s even heard that the Afghans will not be able to sustain the fight after the majority of ISAF forces leave the country.
But Halid does not share that concern.
“Before going on the mission, I believed in the pilots,” he said. “And I felt confident that the Afghan pilots would do well and so I felt very confident about the mission without feeling nervous.”
The captain’s faith in his pilots was rewarded. The mission went as well as any partnered operation.
“Everything was the same as when we go with our partners. The success was the same, everything was the same,” he added.
No friendly wounded; no casualties. Only a suspected insurgent was questioned for processing illegal weaponry. Ultimately, they had a safe mission that brought them home.
And one of many such missions to come. The burden of proof, that he and his men can save their homeland from its enemies, fulfilled.
Halid smiles as he recalls the way his men praised the pilots afterward, “My soldiers were very happy and glad about the pilots,” he said. The pilots executed the mission well and his sense of pride in accomplishing today’s task without U.S. assistance was woven into his grin.
“It was very good; all the soldiers were praising the pilots,” he said.
Sgt. Shaha Buddin, a noncommissioned officer in Halid’s company, offers blunt approval for the pilots. “It was easy for us,” said Buddin. “We did not have any problems.”
“Have You Heard?”
As Halid finishes recalling the simple, but highly significant mission that morning, he does have one concern.
He is worried that the Afghan people do not know about the efforts he and his commandos did that day and what they are doing to ensure they are ready to continue fighting the Taliban on their own.
He is concerned that word will not spread fast and far enough to instill the trust he believes his people should have in their special operations units.
“Because that was the first operation, most of the people don’t know that the commandos do independent operations,” said Halid. “We saw plenty of kids and children on rooftops. They were watching us without any fear.”
Children he said, who were smiling and waving to the commandos during the operation.
Children feeling safe when they see these soldiers may be the highest praise the commandos could ask for.
“The people were very happy to see us,” said Buddin. He is happy that the people know the commandos are doing what they can to help Afghan citizens.
However, many Afghans won’t hear about the 7th SOK’s success from news reports or television anchors.
Word of mouth is the most trusted source of news among the rural populations of Afghanistan. Family and friends share their experiences amongst themselves, sending the story spiraling out from local villages and then throughout the country’s districts.
The SOK commander, Zeibiullah, thinks this will be welcomed news.
“All the nation of Afghanistan is waiting to see the Afghan National Army do their independent missions and we hope it will help us and our people and our country for a better future.”