The soldiers of the Commando Special Forces Group (Jednostka Wojskowa Komandosów – JWK) have been stationing in Afghanistan for over a dozen years. Four years ago, they started training the Afghan Police National Mission Unit (NMU). According to the mandate of the “Resolute Support” mission, they also support their partners in combat.
It is December 8, 2015. A group of well-organized and armed insurgents enter the territory near a military base in Kandahar. They shoot at civilians and set fire to stalls at a local market. A moment later, they take control of a school, taking pupils and teachers hostage, and later seize a multi-storey block of flats located right next to the base. They take hostages – women and children – families of Afghan soldiers.
“It was a very complicated situation. For many hours, the Taliban were shooting at the base from grenade-launchers and anti-tank weapons, and we were unable to counter-attack, as this would pose a threat to the civilians. The insurgents were perfectly aware of this. That’s why they used women and children as living shields,” recalls a JWK soldier. An Afghan National Army Special Operations unit sets off to repel the Taliban attack. Unfortunately, the operation fails. An attempt to enter the seized building leaves two soldiers killed and five wounded. Therefore, ATF444 (Afghan Territorial Force) unit, also stationing in Kandahar, steps in.
“We’d helped the »Triple-Fours« to prepare for this operation, we’d taken part in planning the assault. After over a day of fighting, there was a decision: ATF is taking over the operation. When they went to fight, we were right beside them,” recalls the commando. The Afghan National Mission Unit, supported by the Poles of JWK, release 25 hostages and eliminate the terrorists. None of the held civilians or ATF policemen are wounded. The whole operation was executed less than four months after the Polish special operations forces unit had began their service in Afghanistan within the “Resolute Support” training mission (RSM).
Direction: Middle East
In 2014, JWK commandos from Lubliniec ended their ten-year stay near Hindu Kush, together with the end of the NATO ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission. Only a year later, they set off to Afghanistan again, this time within the said Resolute Support mission. They have been stationing near Hindu Kush continuously since 2015, as the so-called SOAT-50 (Special Operations Advisory Team). They are located in several bases, but their main forces are in Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan. The most important task of the team is to support and train the counter-terrorist Afghan police National Mission Unit ATF444. Their participation in the new allied operation has been anything but surprising. “There had been talk about it even before the ISAF mission ended,” admit the commandos.
It is said that US partners themselves also wanted JWK to be present near Hindu Kush. In order to understand why, we must go almost ten years back: during the ISAF mission, the ISAF special operations command (ISAF SOC) decided that the main task of the coalition forces SOF would be to train newly created special police units. In 2010, a JWK detachment, Task Force 50, was tasked with training “Afghan Tigers,” i.e. a special police unit in the Ghazni province (Provincial Response Company – PRC, today known as Police Special Unit), and later also its twin unit in the Paktika province. “The soldiers were comfortable with the task, as they have experience with operations of that type – military assistance is one of JWK’s tasks. Earlier, operators from Lubliniec had trained local forces in Iraq, including special platoons of the 8th Iraqi Army Division, often together with the Green Berets, the US Army Special Forces partners,” explains Col Michał Strzelecki, the commander of JWK.
He also points out that in Afghanistan the role of the SOF units partnering Afghan forces is not only training and counseling at the bases. “During the so-called partnered operations, the commandos accompany ATF-444, they advise the Afghan Ground Force Commander and leaders of the task elements. They coordinate the use of coalition aviation, provide support of, i.a., medics, snipers, EODs, K9,” explains the colonel.
During the ISAF mission, the counter-terrorist policemen from Ghazni, as some of the first ones in Afghanistan, obtained capability to execute independent operations and successfully completed the certification process to reach Full Operational Capability status. Soon after that, PRC from the Paktika province passed the exam. “This is a true indicator of JWK’s success in the ISAF mission,” says Col Strzelecki. “Our superiors in ISAF SOC were not interested in the statistical race for the number of detained or eliminated insurgents, seized weapon caches or neutralized explosives. The most important issue was the Afghan forces’ readiness to act independently. Operations executed together with the Afghan partners were recognized as valuable only as a way to improve their skills, so that in the future they could execute highest risk operations on their own,” he adds.
It does not, however, detract anything from JWK soldiers’ merit, as the efficiency of TF-50 during ISAF was appreciated by NATO commanders of the highest ranks. Some of the missions executed there by JWK operators are now considered as model SOF operations. The most well-known include Hostage Rescue Operation (HRO) held at the government administration buildings in Sharana, and capturing the Taliban leader Mullah Dawood. “Operational activity in Afghanistan was undertaken simultaneously with the training activity. In time, they began to overlap. The Afghans started executing missions together with us. The more they learned, the more engaged they became, and their role became more important,” explains Arek, a JWK combat squadron commander.
After the end of the ISAF mission, Afghan security forces training remained a priority, although its scale was reduced. NATO SOF still deal with training Afghan police special units. This time, the JWK have been offered cooperation with the so-called NMU (National Mission Units), i.e. national level Afghan National Police counter-terrorist units created in Kabul, Kandahar, and in the Logar province. Recently, new ones have also been created in Jalālābād, Mazār-i-Sharīf and Herāt. Each of the units cooperates with a SOF unit of different nationality – Norwegians, Brits and Poles, and the newly created with Germans, Romanians and Italians.
The task of the NATO SOF (regardless of the assigned Afghan unit) is thus not so much to engage in direct fights, but maintain and develop the skills obtained by local units. The main emphasis is placed on assisting Afghan forces, supporting them during specialist courses and trainings, and advising them. NATO SOF soldiers also still participate in joint operations with Afghan partners.
The commandos from Lubliniec are cooperating with the so-called “Triple-Fours,” i.e. ATF444. The unit was created a dozen or so years ago. It was formed with the help of the British in the Helmand province, and later moved to Kandahar. Americans and Lithuanians had also mentored “Triple-Fours” for some time, and since 2015 they have been supported in training by Poles. ATF444 numbers several hundred policemen – the unit is several times bigger than the “Afghan Tigers” in the Ghazni province. Their tasks include detaining the most dangerous criminals, terrorists, releasing hostages or recovering weapons and explosives caches. Apart from operational activity, “Triple-Fours” constantly develop their skills. They learn from the best, also JWK commandos.
“We train with the Afghans almost every day, usually at their base. The schedule, however, depends on the Operational Tempo. Each rotation is different. The situation in Afghanistan keeps changing, in the summer the Taliban are much more active, so we execute more operations, and, as a result, we conduct fewer trainings,” explains “Łasuch,” the JWK Special Operations Task Unit leader, who has taken part in six deployments. The commandos focus their efforts mainly on training commanders of various levels and instructors. If it is necessary, they also have classes with police officers. “We try to avoid that, though. We want to prepare instructors and later observe their work. This way we can have more influence on preparing the unit to work independently,” emphasizes Arek, the commander of the 11th shift of SOAT-50.
What does the cooperation of units look like during combat operations? If a priority (for RSM and the Afghan government) target is identified, coalition forces air transportation and support assets are available, and superiors give their approval, that is when the so-called partnered operation is prepared. A NATO SOF unit operators are engaged not only in planning and preparing the operation, but also its execution. “It’s not about conducting direct actions for the Afghans, but to mentor them also during operation” says Col Strzelecki. JWK operators are assigned to the ATF444 task elements: the SOTU leader advises the commander of the Afghan combat squadron, pairs of operators accompany assault and blocking elements leaders, particular specialists support their Afghan counterparts. “Soldiers coordinate the mission execution. We help, they execute tasks,” emphasizes Arek. “They are the ones who enter the building first, they search it. In case of Troops in Contact (TIC) situation, we are authorized according to the RSM mandate and the RoE [Rules of Engagement] to engage the enemy, but I emphasize again – this is not the main reason why we are there,” adds Col Strzelecki.
That is what happened, for example, in May 2017, when the Afghan SOF units supported by Polish soldiers, the Military Counterintelligence Service officers, and the US aviation, released 11 hostages from the hands of the Taliban. The daring action of the Afghan SOF, supported by the Polish commandos, was carried out in the Taliban-controlled Helmand province in south-west Afghanistan, at a prison where four policemen, two soldiers and five civilians had been held and tortured by the Taliban for four months.
Kandahar has great significance due to its geographical location. As a place inhabited mainly by Pashtuns, and the cradle of Taliban leaders and prominent Afghan politicians, it is a good example of the clash between pro-government and anti-government forces.
Undoubtedly, a big test for the effectiveness of activities aiming at improving security, undertaken by the local and national authorities, are elections organized in Afghanistan. They clearly show the biggest problems consuming the Afghan society, such as nepotism, corruption, or significant influence of social groups connected with the Taliban. The parliamentary elections of 2018, and the presidential elections of September 2019 showed changes in social attitudes in the province towards the permanent psychological and military activities undertaken by the Taliban. Despite the smaller number of terrorist attacks reported in Kandahar during the last presidential election, as compared to the parliamentary one in 2018, the total number of voters was smaller, which proves that the locals feel less secure. Therefore, any actions aiming at neutralizing the Taliban propaganda and countering their attacks should involve strengthening military presence, as well as psychological activities, such as, for example, building, or rather restoring, the ethos of the Afghan soldier.
Marcin Rzepka, PhD, is a Persian philologist, an expert on the Middle East. He works at the Institute of History at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Kraków.
autor zdjęć: Bogusław Politowski