Afghan special ops units a key to US exit

A hundred or so turbaned, bearded Afghans packed the plastic mats outside the fort, staring sceptically at Afghan officials on a makeshift outdoor stage. The officials were making the case for setting up a local police force.

Updated: May 10, 2011, 14:25 PM IST

Paktika: A hundred or so turbaned, bearded Afghans packed the plastic mats outside the fort, staring sceptically at Afghan officials on a makeshift outdoor stage. The officials were making the case for setting up a local police force.

Off to the side, watching silently, were the U.S. special operations troops who had made the meeting possible by flying in the officials and disarming the villagers before they entered the compound.

If all went well, the Americans would later be training the neighborhood-watch-like police force to protect the villagers from the Taliban, and hastening the handover of security responsibility to the Afghans.

The Associated Press got a rare glimpse at the ground level of this U.S. special operations mission — one vastly different from the daring raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, credits increased use of special operations with helping blunt Taliban momentum, largely by taking out militant leaders.

Less well-known is the model Petraeus has supported alongside the expanded raids, whereby special operations troops pair with Afghans to provide protection, while training forces — from local police to Afghanistan`s own special operators — to take their place. The fledgling success of such units marks a subtle shift toward Afghan independence, and a possible exit strategy for the U.S.

Senior officials at the White House and in Congress are beginning to speak cautiously of a new special-operations-led model as the way ahead in Afghanistan. Roughly 100,000 U.S. conventional forces would draw down to fewer than 30,000 conventional forces, while special operations forces would mentor local security forces and continue their high pace of kill-and-capture raids against militants.

Three senior administration officials and two officials in Congress laid out the plan on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive strategic discussions.

Under the proposed scenario, special operations troops would keep hunting Taliban and al-Qaida, but most, including U.S. Army Green Berets, Marine Special Operations troops and even Navy SEALs, would mentor and fight alongside Afghans for possibly a decade to come. There is precedent for that kind of train-and-fight force, like the U.S. military mission that started in the Philippines in 2001, where a few hundred U.S. troops are helping Filipino counterterrorist troops battle a homegrown Islamic insurgency.

There would still be 20,000 to 30,000 U.S forces on the ground by the end of 2014, when the Afghans are supposed to be "in the lead" in the fight, one of the senior officials said. But with relatively fewer U.S. troops than the Afghans, the U.S. would be backing them up rather than fighting the battles for them.

It`s somewhere between the current counterinsurgency strategy, with large numbers of conventional forces taking and holding territory, and the narrow alternative favored by Vice President Joe Biden during the Obama administration`s debate over Afghanistan policy in 2009.

The new hybrid would be distinctly different from the special-operations-led mission of the Bush era, which was mainly focused on training Afghans to help hunt bin Laden, according to officers with several combat tours there since 2003.

Skeptics say it`s another form of costly nation-building the U.S. can ill-afford, against an enemy that simply rests and waits until the Americans run out of time, money and manpower.

"Tactically, they`re a success, but how do you connect these forces with the Afghan government?" asks retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes. Since most Afghans still don`t trust the government, he adds, "What`s to stop them fighting for their village, against the government?"

Even the plan`s backers worry the White House may draw down conventional troops before the U.S.-backed Afghan special operating forces have a chance to mature, leaving the U.S. special-ops-backed Afghans vulnerable to being overrun and reliant on a skeleton crew of U.S. logistics, communications and intelligence resources.

Petraeus would not say whether a special operations-led model was one of the options he planned to present to the White House in advance of President Barack Obama`s deadline to begin drawing down U.S. forces in July.

But in an interview with the AP in Kabul, Petraeus had high praise for the Afghans.