Q&A with Brigadier General Edward M. Reeder Jr.
SW: We understand that you were charged with creating the new Afghan Special Forces. Tell us how that charge came about.
Reeder: In the winter of 2006, while serving as the commander, Combined Joint Special-Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, we received a tasking for then-Brigadier General Frank Kearney, commander, Special Operations Command, U.S. Central Command, to conduct the feasibility of establishing an Afghan Special Forces unit. After careful consideration and analysis, we concluded that the Afghan National Security Forces, specifically the Afghan Army, simply did not have the core capability to develop, task-organize, equip, train and sustain a special forces-capable unit. Furthermore, we decided during that time frame that the Afghan Army did not need a special-forces capability, as they were still in the early stages of building an Army and confronted with the enduring challenges of sustaining that force.
Brigadier General Kearney then directed that we design, train, equip and sustain a Commando force. The intent of the Commandos was to build a well-organized, well-trained and well-led infantry fighting force. The concept was developed by the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan at Bagram Airfield, the Afghan training cadre was trained in 2006 in Jordan, and the first two kandaks, or battalions, were trained in 2007 at Camp Morehead in Kabul. There are currently nine Commando kandaks, and they remain the most effective fighting force in the Afghan Army.
During 2009, the Combined Forces Special Operations Command-Afghanistan looked at various ways to complement the U. S. Special Forces A-detachments, or ODAs, as the concept of the local defense initiative, also referred to as LDI (later as the community defense initiative, and later as village-stability operations) was developed. The concept was to build a Special Forces-capable Afghan ODA that would be assigned to every location where we had a U.S. Special Forces ODA supporting the LDI. The idea was that the Afghan ODA would have better access and placement in the local communities and local tribes. We wanted the Afghan Special Forces to be capable of recruiting and training the local participants in the LDI as well as being the lead for promoting local governance. The Combined Forces Special Operation Component Command- Afghanistan approached the concept of developing an Afghan Special Forces with the Afghan Minister of Defense and the Afghan chief of the Army staff in 2009. Both were enthusiastic supporters of building an Afghan Special Forces. The concept was briefed to then-Maj. Gen. Dick Formica, commander, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, who approved the concept in 2009. The plan was approved for a Special Forces brigade headquarters, four battalions and 72 ODAs. A U.S. Special Forces advanced operating base was assigned the task of training the Afghan ODAs, and the first Afghan ODAs began their training in 2010.
SW: Can you describe for us some of the challenges you faced in designing the new force?
Reeder: Essential to all Special Forces engagements with foreign forces are built-in elements of sustainability and host-nation support. We knew from the beginning that we had to build a system that the Afghan National Security Force could take over and maintain. In Afghanistan, as in so many other locations where Green Berets are operating around the globe, we must have the support of the people if our efforts are to produce lasting effects.
The initial concept that was briefed to the Afghan Minister of Defense was to develop a force that leveraged the local ethnicity and tribal affiliations. As each U.S. Special Forces group has a geographic orientation, and each Green Beret is language-trained in that particular focus area, we envisioned an Afghan Special Forces ODA recruited, trained and developed from the geographic regions of Afghanistan. Soldiers who were of the same tribal affiliations would serve in the same area. The idea was that the Afghan ODAs would know the people well, understand the regional cultures, and have instant placement and access. However, that concept proved difficult to execute, and it was abandoned in favor of a multiethnic Afghan Special Forces.
We needed an indigenous force that could go out and live among the populace and provide a continuous presence. That is one of the missions Green Berets are specifically designed, trained and equipped to do — to work through and with locals. In two years, the capability has increased ten-fold.
SW: Tell us about the training program and its similarities to Special Forces training in the United States.
Reeder: The program of instruction for the Afghan Special Forces is similar to that for training U.S. Special Forces. The same structure is in place for the teams, with the U.S. Special Forces ODA being the blueprint. There is officer and NCO leadership, with weapons, medical, military intelligence and engineer skill sets represented on the teams. The difference in the force structure was that instead of a 12-man ODA, we built a 15-man ODA, adding an additional intelligence sergeant, an explosive-ordnance-disposal sergeant and a religious officer.
What is different is the scope. Our U.S. Special Forces are trained over a multi-year training pipeline for worldwide employment of all core missions, but the training of Afghan Special Forces is focused on internal-defense tasks and counterinsurgency tasks within Afghanistan only. For example, the weapons training focuses on Soviet weapons systems common in the region rather than on systems found worldwide. The reduction in scope allows for an accelerated training program that is producing competent Afghan forces who can execute missions and train their own forces.
SW: How has the course developed since its implementation?
Reeder: The selection process has not changed, but recruiting has expanded. The recruiting pool now includes the entire Afghan National Army, which reduces attrition on the Commandos. Some expected adjustments have been made in order to compensate for the fact that armywide recruits do not have the same level of experience or elite training as Commandos, who made up the initial teams. Another change is an increase in sustainment training. Many of the soldiers trained earlier are returning for further training, such as driving skills and leadership courses.
SW: Are American SF Soldiers still actively engaged in the training?
Reeder: U.S. Green Berets are still engaged in a reduced capacity. We are serving in an assist mode rather than as primary trainers, in most instances. U.S. medical sergeants still lead medical training, based on their expertise and the complexity of the subject matter. We still take the lead on demolitions training. For the most part, they are training their own troops. The first order of business was to train the best of the initial Commando classes to serve as cadre, so they could train using situational-based training.
SW: What impact is the new force having in the villages throughout Afghanistan?
Reeder: These teams provide immediate rapport with the local populace and at times have ties with the locals. The ANA SF teams take the lead in the villages, and they add legitimacy to the mission. They are prepared to engage the populace the Afghan way, to be present for shuras with tribal elders and local leaders.
Having trained, competent Afghan Special Forces ODAs increases the capacity on the ground, enables them to stand up the ALP quicker and reduces the reliance on local national interpreters.
SW: We understand that some of the best leaders of the Afghan Commandos were pulled to help form the new Special Forces. How has the creation of the force affected the performance of the Commandos?
Reeder: There was some initial concern that it would deplete the Commandos of their best and brightest, but we've been able to mitigate this by getting the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command involved in the process, which was one of the initial goals of the program. With a leadership course at Camp Morehead, the Commandos have been able to produce sufficient numbers to maintain their capabilities.
SW: Has the division into Commandos and SF caused any ill-will among the force?
Reeder: The Commandos and the Afghan Special Forces work together, but they have different missions.
There was a deliberate decision to keep the same patch for both units, to build camaraderie. There was already an awareness of the patch, which is recognized on the battlefield and associated with certain capabilities and professionalism.
SW: How do their roles differ?
Reeder: The Afghan National Army Commandos are an infantry-based force conducting direct-action-type missions, but they have the capability for multi-day operations in support of village-stability operations.
The Afghan Special Forces are trained and educated to go out in the populace for extended periods of time. They live with the locals and engage in longer-term internal-development operations and counterinsurgency operations.
SW: Can you comment on the performance of the new Afghan Special Forces?
Reeder: I'm pleased with what I've seen from the Afghan Special Forces teams and their contributions on the ground. As designed, they are able to train the local forces and expand to the next village, which supports VSO.
With the Special Warfare Center of Excellence, the ANASOC is taking the lead in training and serving as a proponent for their Special Forces. They take ownership of it, run it and are ultimately responsible for maintaining the capabilities for which we established the infrastructure.
In order for anything to work in Afghanistan, there has to be a local solution. It sounds cliché now, but every single location in Afghanistan is different. Each Afghan Special Forces ODA has a completely different problem set. Our Green Berets are working with the ANASOC and the Afghan Special Forces ODAs to identify the problems and find solutions. That is exactly what Special Forces ODAs are designed to do, both U.S. and Afghan, and they are doing it brilliantly.