Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Guest Blog: Afghans or Americans on Top? The Future of Special Forces Operations in Afghanistan

Gary Owen 13 min

In July, a new task force combining all international and Afghan special forces under a unified command was set up. Known as the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan (SOJTF-A), it is led by an American general, but its spokesperson told AAN, ‘SOJTF-A does not have command of any Afghan Special Operations Forces, rather, we partner, train and fight together against the tyranny of terror in order to liberate the oppressed.’ Guest blogger and former serving US military officer, Gary Owen(*), has been scrutinizing the new task force and what appear to be the inherent contradictions of its command chain. He asks whether it may be a way of quietly re-introducing international control over night raids – following the April 2012 MoU between the Afghan and US governments which should have shifted command of them to Afghan forces – and looks at what the new force tells us about possible US and NATO plans for continuing combat operations after 2014.

Trying to get all of the different forces of a single country to function together in a deployment is complicated enough. When it is the various Special Forces contingents of different countries trying to conduct operations together, the situation can quickly deteriorate into territorial infighting, even when they have a common cause. To get them working together, it is imperative they report to some kind of over-arching command element and this is the stated purpose of the new Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan (SOJTF-A)(1), as explained by the SOJTF-A spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Todd Harrell, (here and here):
The new group, known as Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan (SOJTF-A), will bring all elements of American, NATO and Afghan special operations under a single organization, SOCOM spokesman Lt. Col Todd Harrell told The Hill on Tuesday.

Led by Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, the new command is essentially designed to improve coordination among U.S. NATO and Afghan special forces, allowing ‘units to share information, resources and enablers and ensures a more efficient use of these resources,’ according to Harrell.

‘As a unified command, SOJTF-A presents (U.S. and coalition) command with one collective voice’ for special operations, he added. [brackets in original text]

Special operations have a long history in Afghanistan. It was US SOF that first fought the Taleban alongside the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taleban groups in 2001. There is also precedence for the kind of interagency cooperation, now seen embodied in SOJTF-A. Indeed, as the current order of battle shows, other NATO and NATO-aligned special operations groups exist, subordinate to the new task force, something which has been the case throughout much of the post-2001 conflict. What makes the new force unique is that, as its commander, Maj Gen Thomas explained, this is the first time ‘in a deployed environment’ that ‘special operations is [sic] all under one command’. This, it should be stressed, is the first time such a task force has been set up anywhere in the world and, perhaps more importantly for Afghanistan, the first time Afghan SOF have been included in the ranks of such a force.(2)

Standing it up will have meant overcoming a whole series of obstacles, from inter-service (and even intra-service) rivalries to non-integrated communication systems, to establishing which service would be responsible for overall control of the force. It seems pertinent to ask, therefore, why would NATO and the US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) want the bother of creating this command now, in 2012, with the 2014 transition looming ever larger on the horizon and the drawdown of foreign troops imminent?

The professional background of the new SOJTF-A commander, General Thomas, tells us a lot about why the new force was established, beside the official reason of the need for better coordination. Thomas was the deputy commander of the United States’ Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), in its current iteration the brainchild of a previous commander of ISAF, General Stanley McChrystal, and the main force behind the capture or kill tactic – whereby insurgent leaders are detained or subject to targeted killing (for background, see an AAN report here). The idea for JSOC’s current operating methods emerged when McChrystal was deployed to Iraq and realized that the various special operations forces and organisations of the United States like the CIA (which has its own paramilitary operations officers (see this job advert) needed to cooperate.

JSOC under McChrystal was a revolutionary break with past ways of doing things. Instead of taking the usual approach to interagency cooperation, McChrystal modeled JSOC on the cellular structure of al-Qaeda, bringing all assets – officers from SOF, the CIA, Air Force SOF, Air Force etc – together at various levels and empowering them to make decisions without referring to their particular hierarchy. By eliminating much of the bureaucracy in the system, in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, JSOC has allowed a broad range of special operations and covert units to be employed against opposing forces, effectively and efficiently. In this role, Thomas would have become well-versed in the intricacies of interagency operations in the prosecution of the ‘war on terror’. It seems clear he was appointed because his specific set of experiences at JSOC are fundamental to his current role: engendering the sort of cooperation seen as vital to the future of coalition and Afghan special operations forces in Afghanistan.

Bringing Afghan forces into the overall SOF fold should make the continued execution of night raids (one of the key components of the counterterrorism campaign) easier to accomplish. It is a testament to the working relationship established by the coalition and Afghan SOF that, unlike other partnered operations during the green on blue crisis, there was no apparent operational pause in their combined operations, at least based on ISAF’s own reporting.

Stories on SOJTF-A can, unusually for special operations commands, which generally thrive on secrecy, be viewed on the web; the new task force has a public face on Twitter and Storify, a website with beautiful photos, accompanying the stories of derring-do which tend to lead on Afghan SOF actions. Those accounts further illuminate the fact that this is not just a US effort, as the full title of the new command is Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan/NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan (SOJTF-A/NSOCC-A).

We then come to the contentious question of who is in charge of the new force. The SOJTF-A commander, General Thomas, is an American. Yet at the same time, the SOJTF-A spokesman has stated quite clearly that the Afghans will not be commanded by the US:

While the new command does unify the various special operations forces working in the country, Thomas or any other American special operations officer will ‘not have command authority over Afghan special operations forces’ under the new organization, he [the spokesman] said.

How can this all be squared? At this point, readers may also be mystified as to how having a US general command of SOJTF-A can be reconciled with the Special Operations MoU, (read text and analysis here), signed in April 2012, which was supposed to put all special operations under Afghan control. This was certainly the impression given by the ISAFpress release at the time:

Gen. John R. Allen, commander of United States Forces – Afghanistan and Afghan Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak today ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ signed an agreement on the process by which Afghan National Security Forces will take the lead on special operations, a critical security responsibility in Afghanistan.

There is an important subtext – which I will come back to later: if Afghans can be relied on to take the lead in special operations, with all of the tactical complexity that implies, there should be no issue with them assuming full command of the overall security mission well in time for the projected 2014 deadline for the removal of most ISAF troops from Afghanistan.

However, the main message of the MoU was that President Karzai had finally managed to wrest control of night raids, one of the most contentious aspects of the international military presence. The text of the MoU said that:

Special operations that are expected to result in detention or the search of a residential house or private compound are to be authorized in accordance with Afghan laws [eg with a judge’s warrant].

Residential houses are to be searched only if necessary, and as part of the conduct of special operations, only Afghan Forces should search residential houses and private compounds.

The KAQ/QKA [Khasa Amalyati Qeta/Qeta-ye Khas-e Amalyati – the Pashto and Dari names for the Afghan Special Forces] can enter private compounds, residential houses, and other areas for the purposes of search and arrest, in accordance with Afghan laws, with support from U.S. Forces only as required or requested…
(Articles 5, a, b, c, MoU on Special Operations)

It is this author’s opinion that the SOJTF-A appears precisely to get around some of the vague provisions of the MoU, for example US Forces giving support ‘as required or requested.’ AAN scepticism at the time – as put by Kate Clark – now looks well-grounded:

How far the Afghan government actually achieves sovereignty remains to be seen: one can imagine ‘US support’, for example, meaning US forces and advisors remaining in de facto command, with Afghan colleagues being deferential to their wishes and expertise. However, the MoU does give Afghans the means to actually take some sort of command and control. 

The autonomy promised by this MoU and another, signed in March 2012, on the Bagram Detention Centre – flagged up at the time as a handover of security prisoners/facilities (see text and analysis here) – had already been put in doubt by the revelation in September that US forces were still detaining Afghans: the Afghan government has said this is breaching both MoUs, the US has said it is perfectly in line with them (see analysis here).

The key question here is what ‘being in charge’ actually means. Despite denials that Afghan SOF will be commanded by internationals – and AAN did try to pin down SOJTF-A on this – see our questions and their less than helpful answers below(3) – one would want to look very hard at how decisions are made, both at the command and tactical levels. Decision-making at the strategic level might look fairly collegial, but at the tactical level when different units fight together on an operation, the person with the most experience is likely to be in charge and driving decisions – and in Afghanistan, that is likely still to be the foreigners.

Reading ISAF’s own reporting, the larger majority of Afghan SOF operations are still partnered. If the Afghans were currently able to operate unilaterally, then the issue of command would be the same as faced in any similar combined effort: the various allied forces have to make decisions about who is in charge of certain aspects of any shared operation, whatever its size, from a night raid to the ongoing operations this year to ‘clean up’ Ghazni. Someone has to be in overall charge. From the SOJTF-A’s own Storify site, the first unilateral operation conducted by a company of commandos using Afghan air assets occurred in August:

The men of 1st Special Operations Kandak have planned and conducted several highly successful unilateral missions resulting in the capture of key enemy leaders with no U.S. presence during the mission. Now, they’ve included the Mi-17 and we’re merely observers.

But later on that story also detailed how Afghan SOF were still operating with US advisory support:

Separately, Commandos from 3rd Company, 5th Special Operations Kandak, conducted a clearing operation in Kunduz province, Aug. 3. Commandos, with coalition advisors, disrupted the insurgents’ offensive capability in the area and detained five individuals of interest.

So while there is evidently progress toward Afghan unilateral activities, the Afghan SOF are still operating in a subordinate/trainee role in the presence of international advisors. It is not militarily possible for them to operate as equals while foreign forces are still providing extensive support.

Indeed, recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal makes it clear that the interaction is not that of peers on equal footing, but a subordinate trainer/trainee relationship. In the article, Brig. Gen. Mark Smethhurst, a senior Australian commander of coalition special operations forces, describes the role of international forces as: ‘… like walking your kid to school and holding his hand. We’re still holding their hands.’

Apart from the thorny question of who is in charge of the new force, the other question is why now? It seems entirely plausible that the new command is being stood up just as the drawdown gets going to better enable combat operations in Afghanistan after 2014 when most conventional forces have left.

Reporting on the setting up of SOJTF-A, The Wall Street Journal article, quoted earlier, said the new task force would allow US elite SOF units to ‘pull back from the front lines’, shifting to ‘a rear-guard role in Afghanistan’ assisting a greatly improved Afghan SOF who would be the main force confronting the Taleban. USA Today, also already cited above, reported a very different scenario. It quoted the SOJTF-A spokesman saying the unprecedented joint command ‘demonstrates our commitment to an enduring presence beyond 2014.’ The author reported that the new force was ‘an effort to improve coordination and pave the way for the possibility of continued U.S. military presence after 2014 when most American forces will withdraw.’ It quoted the Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman, Zahir Azimi:

[He] declined to discuss the possibility of special forces operations continuing in Afghanistan beyond 2014, saying it was a matter being discussed at top levels of the Afghan government.

Azimi here is not denying it, simply refusing to comment. General Allen, in recent comments to NBC’s Nightly News, had this to say in response to the question about whether or not special operations forces would remain in Afghanistan after 2014:

The intent is that our relationship will be a training and advisory relationship. The war for all intents and purposes ends in December, 2014.

A large part of the role that SOF play in any theatre of operations is a training and advisory capacity. SOF could still be operating under this mandate and actually be conducting counter-terror/counterinsurgency operations under the cover of training and mentoring.

Or there could be a much more open arrangement. The nature of a possible post-2014 presence for SOF/CIA/JSOC was reported on by various journalists attending the same speech by the current head of US SOF world-wide, Admiral Bill McCraven, in February 2012. According to The Washington Post:

The CIA is expected to maintain a large clandestine presence in Iraq and Afghanistan long after the departure of conventional U.S. troops as part of a plan by the Obama administration to rely on a combination of spies and Special Operations forces to protect U.S. interests in the two longtime war zones, U.S. officials said. (See also here and here.)

It should also be born in mind that the groundwork for future cooperation is being laid in other respects. International SOF (particularly the Americans, who are most closely involved in the training of their Afghan SOF counterparts) work very hard to establish close relationships with their trainees, as that bond will be essential for successfully carrying out combined special operations in the future. Consequently, there exists anesprit de corps based on a shared sense of professionalism and competency that is levels above their conventional counterparts. Afghan SOF, due to the nature of the selection process, are more motivated, better trained, and more inclined to want to execute operations that they perceive as fighting the enemies of Afghanistan.

It is unclear how the Afghan public will perceive the operations of this new task force, if it becomes clear that their forces are, in fact, subordinate to an American command. Until now, many Afghans, at least in Kabul, appear to think well of the Afghan SOF, as they have demonstrated (at least as far as the public is concerned) the ability to deal with concerted insurgent attacks (see reporting here and here). Granted, the Afghans were heavily supported by their coalition partners, but the fact remains that they were perceived as having been in the lead in these counter-attacks.

There has been mixed messaging on SOJTF-A – Afghans won’t be commanded by Americans, but have an American commander. Despite this, given General Thomas’ background at JSOC, Afghan SOF’s continuing dependence on US air support and other assets, their continuing trainee role and the messy fall out over the Bagram MoU and the continuing US/Afghan tussle to control detentions, one must see the end result of the establishment of SOJTF-A as greater control over Afghan special operations activities by NATO forces from ‘within’ and for the foreseeable future. There are also clear indications that it will act as a starting point for increased covert operations, either through US military forces or other more covert units such as the CIA’s paramilitary arms.(4)

This brings us back to the suspicion that SOJTF-A is being used to circumvent the ‘Afghan-led’ spirit of the Special Operations MoU, that it is a challenge to Afghan sovereignty and the future ability of the Afghan security forces to conduct unilateral operations to defend the country of Afghanistan from insurgents.

It is worth stressing here that the SOJTF-A goes entirely against ISAF and NATO’s stated goal to transition toward Afghan forces which (they keep insisting) will be fully capable of securing the country. SOJTF-A represents a significant step away from Afghan independence. If NATO/ISAF are working toward Afghan forces being less reliant on their coalition partners, this is a clear failure. This new command, while serving Western interests in countering those they see as terrorists in the region, is counter-productive when it comes to the need of the Afghan government to have independent forces it can count on to defend itself.

(*) Gary Owen is a civilian development worker who has spent the last three years in Afghanistan, working in Ghazni, Gardez, Khost and Kabul provinces. Previously, he spent 21 months in Iraq on two different deployments: in 2004, as an infantry officer in Taji, and, in 2008, as a civil affairs officer in Tikrit.

(1) For those not versed in military terms, this glossary may help with why the new force was named the Special Forces Joint Task Force – Afghanistan.

Joint: In military doctrine, a joint operation is one conducted involving more than one branch of a military service. For example, if a country’s army and navy work together, that’s considered a joint operation.

Combined: This term is used to denote that the forces of more than one country are involved. So in the case of a unit like the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, what that means is that units from various countries and military services (US Army, Navy, and Marines along with their NATO partner equivalents) are working together in a single combined unit. (One might have thought that using the term Combined, rather than Joint would have been the more accurate naming here.)

Task force (TF): This term is used to denote a group assembled for a specific task. In this context, what it generally means is a military organization assembled from other units. It simplifies some of the bureaucracy associated with standing up a completely different command.

Special operations forces (SOF): This is a broad term used to denote those troops that are trained to do fairly specific tasks at a higher level of proficiency than conventional forces. In the United States military, they all fall under a single command, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and include a variety of units, from the Rangers and Special Forces (SF, also known as ‘Green Berets’) all the way through the more covert units like Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D, commonly known as ‘Delta Force’, commanded by the US Army).

Conventional forces: The larger majority of the forces in Afghanistan fall into this category. These are the people whose support and assistance most of the SOF rely on to ensure their missions are a success. While a Delta team is going to be actively engaging a target, for example, more than likely their outer security during that operation will be provided by conventional forces. Special operations units just do not have the manpower to conduct all the activities essential to their success.

(2) All other instances are on an ad hoc advisory basis, temporary for the prosecution of particular combat operations, or unofficial – for example, the various ‘campaign forces’ like the Kandahar Strike Force, Matiullah Khan’s militia in Uruzgan and the Afghan Security Guards which operates in Loya Paktia which appear to answer to US SOF and CIA and at best have an informal Afghan command chain which does not go through the MoD or MoI (see here).

(3) AAN emailed these questions to the Special Operations Spokesperson and received the following answers:

Question:  Could you explain the command chain of SOJTF-A to me? The commander, General Thomas, is an American, yet the SOJTF-A spokesman said, ‘Thomas or any other American special operations officer will ‘not have command authority over Afghan special operations forces.’

Answer: SOJTF-A is the major command for all Coalition Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. The ANA SOF, naturally, fall under their own chain of command within GIRoA.

Q How can Afghan SOF, which are still being heavily mentored, operate as a peer in the SOJTF-A?

SOJTF-A Forces maintain a very close relationship with Afghan partners such as the Afghan Commandos, the Crisis Response Unit and the Provincial Response Companies as well as train and mentor the local police.

Q How does the new command fit into the requirements of the US/Afghan Special Operations MOU? In particular, article 2: ‘The Khasa Amalyati Qeta/Qeta-e-Khas-e-Amalyati, or Afghan Special Operations Unit …. leads special operations with support from U.S. Forces to provide security and stability in Afghanistan.’ Who commands the operations?

We intend to maintain and continue to forge bonds with our Afghan SOF brothers who continue to develop and set the standard of excellence within the ANSF. Our Afghan SOF brothers are quite capable and often operate unilaterally. That said, we are always ready to support them and fight along side them in our joint mission to liberate them from the oppression of extremism and terror.

Q Article 3 of the MoU says that: ‘The OCG [Afghan Operational Coordination Group] is an Afghan entity manned by Afghan personnel from security and law enforcement agencies. Among its responsibilities, the OCG reviews and approves special operations missions, participates in intelligence fusion, monitors mission execution, makes notifications to Provincial Governors, and makes reports to senior Afghan command authorities. Regional OCGs are being established and are expected to have responsibilities similar to the headquarters OCG.’

Is the OCG above or below General Thomas in the command chain?

Let me make this perfectly clear. SOJTF-A does not have command of any Afghan Special Operations Forces, rather, we partner, train and fight together against the tyranny of terror in order to liberate the oppressed.

(4) It has been reported that, in response to the efforts of the Haqqanis, the Obama administration has regularly reviewed plans for joint US/Afghan raids into Haqqani safe havens in Pakistan (see here for example). If that were ever to be the case – and bearing in mind, the diplomatically explosive nature of any such plan to get boots on the ground as well as drones in the Pakistan skies, one would expect the new task force to be involved.

Photo: from Storify website, here.