At a former Soviet training base in the town of Rish Khvor, a few miles out of Kabul, American Green Berets are working to mentor and support Afghan Special Force soldiers code-named Commandos. Better equipped, better trained, better paid and reputedly incorruptible, the Afghan Commando is meant to be everything the Afghan National Army (ANA) is not. The competition to become part of the elite force is grueling, and the reward for those who make it is the guarantee of battle against deadly insurgent forces.
"There is no corruption among the Commandos," says Maj. Mohmand Zabihullah, Company Commander for the General Training Company, staring intensely as he says it. A veteran of the Afghan military, Zabihullah spent nearly two years in the United States training at Quantico with United States Marines. He is well aware of Afghan soldiers' reputation for corruption, and he vows the Commandos he trains are above it.
The corruption in the army is largely due to lack of pay. The old-fashioned system of cash issued in person by a paymaster is slow, inefficient and skimmed. Soldiers throughout Afghanistan have gone months without receiving salary or rations, and they have occasionally resorted to charging tolls and requisitioning food from the locals. So when the Taliban targeted the soldiers for assassination, there was little sympathy among the general population, and the insurgency grew.
But things are different among the Commandos. "Most important is the education. Commandos are taught to serve the people, not themselves,” said Col. Dadan Lawang, a 25-year veteran of the Afghan military. Lawang learned under the Soviet system, where heavy-handed leader took what he wanted without any questions. Under the guidance of the American Green Berets, that mentality is changing and fast.
“The Americans expect us to be more clever and knowledgeable,” said Master Sgt. Harzira Mirwais, 24. “We discipline, but the soldier needs to understand why,” he said as a recruit grabbed a 50-pound sandbag and began a mile run up a very steep hill. He was being punished for a safety violation on the firing range.
That discipline has bred success. Commandos have been an effective quick reaction force, setting out on missions that have captured or detained over three dozen of the most wanted men in Afghanistan, all under the eye of a handful of U.S. Army Special Force Operators.
"The Commandos are rock stars among the Afghan populace," said a Green Beret who has watched the fighting force progress.
And they look the part. Commandos wear Oakley sunglasses, dark gloves, Western-style boots, pristine bright green uniforms and a blood-red beret. Thanks in part to the American taxpayer, they get paid twice as much as ANA soldiers. They are armed with American M-4 rifles, not the AK-47s their grandfathers fired and the ANA soldiers still use. The M-4 can coordinate with a lot of high tech upgrades, and laser telescopic sights and night vision goggles are quickly becoming standard issue.
Where most Afghans will never get the chance to drive, the Commandos roll in armored gun and cargo trucks, sometimes bouncing drivers off the road in Kabul.
They are a source of pride for the Afghan population, and men from all backgrounds can join. "At every selection we make sure there are this many Pashtuns, Hazara, Uzbeks, and Turkmen," said Zabihullah. "Ethnicity is finished once they become Commandos. They are all Afghans. There's only one tribe, the Commando Tribe.”
Zabihullah believes the Commandos represent a new future for the Afghan military — and for their country. He says he felt a glimpse of his nation's potential and the role of his elite troops when he graduated from the Marine Corps basic school.
"I held up the Afghan flag during the graduation ceremony. It was the proudest moment of my life," he said.