Patang Qureshi is proud to do his part to defend his homeland.
As a member of the 17,000-strong Afghan special forces, the young battle-hardened soldier sees himself on the front lines of rescuing Afghanistan from predatory neighbors and malicious insurgents.
“For more than a century now, outsiders have not allowed us to live peacefully in our homeland,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “My only wish is to see this homeland peaceful so we can rebuild it.”
Before leaving on dangerous missions that often involve night raids, firefights, and ambushes against well-armed Taliban and Islamic State (IS) fighters, Qureshi sends his son, the eldest of his four children, out to buy candy from a nearby grocery store. “I don’t want to leave them crying or knowing their father’s life is on the line.”
Speaking to Radio Free Afghanistan from the Special Operations Corps in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Qureshi said he has been on a demanding duty tour for 40 days.
"Commando training never ends because they are always in operations. We are required to quickly adapt and learn new tactics every day," he said.
It’s an uphill fight. Following the drawdown of most NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the insurgents overran large swaths of Afghan territory by inflicting heavy casualties on overstretched, under-resourced, and poorly trained Afghan forces.
The U.S. government’s main watchdog organization in Afghanistan, SIGAR, reported late last month that the Afghan government control over its territory is decreasing. With insurgents and government forces contesting 30 percent of the territory, Kabul now holds less than 57 percent of the country while insurgents completely controlled or influenced more than 13 percent of it.
The picture is likely to remain the same for some time. Afghanistan’s regular forces are officially reported to number some 322,000 soldiers and supporting personnel. But uncertainty surrounds the actual number. SIGAR reported in February last year that its work showed that “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies truly know how many Afghan soldiers and police are available for duty, or, by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities”.
The special forces are the bright spot in this mixed picture of Afghanistan’s military forces. A NATO resolute support mission spokesman, Kone Faulkner, told Radio Free Afghanistan “They have never lost against the Taliban.”
“The commandos are game changers on the battlefield,” he added. “The commandos can be described as the best in the region, their training and how they perform on the battlefield.”
Encouraged by the success of the elite forces, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced in August plans to double their number to 34,000 by 2019.
However, doing so may be challenging. Recruitment in recent months has focused on replacing special forces troops lost during last year’s fighting, meaning the drive to “substantially” increase numbers would take longer, NATO coalition spokesman Captain Bill Salvin told Reuters. Other NATO officials confirm that the special forces today are heavily overburdened. Outgoing U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, said that “by the end of the year they were stretched. An awful lot was asked of them.”
According to a recent report by the Afghan Analyst Network think tank the expansion of the Afghan special forces spurred by their battlefield success, risks turning them into shock troops at the expense of making sustainable gains against the insurgents.
“Such a focus on shock troops concentrates efforts on capturing territory from the insurgency, rather than addressing the more pressing problem – which is holding cleared areas,” the report noted.
The report added that increasingly pinning hopes on the special forces also risks turning them into Afghan army’s ‘primary maneuver force’ while masking some of the difficulties faced by the Afghan National Army (ANA).
“[This] simply circumvents the actual problem that conventional ANA forces are apparently not up to their main task, which would be bearing the brunt of the fight, in both, offensive operations to wrestle territory back from the insurgency and defensive operations to hold captured areas,” the report concluded.
NATO, however, is still putting its focus on the special forces. In early November, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the alliance would increase the number of NATO forces in Afghanistan from 13,000 to around 16,000.
He said the foreign forces, about half from the United States, will “train, assist, and advise, and in particular, we are focusing on training the Afghan special operations forces, which have proven so key in the fight against insurgents, the terrorists, the Taliban, and we are going to help them with developing their air force.”
During his nine years on the job, Qureshi has served in operations against the Taliban and IS militants. Two years ago, his unit led the Afghan forces’ effort to recapture the northern city of Kunduz that the Taliban briefly captured in September 2015.
More recently, his unit led the fight against IS militants in Achin. IS fighters overran this mountainous district in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar nearly three years ago to set up their regional headquarters. Most of Achin is back under Afghan government control with insurgents and security forces still engaging in sporadic clashes in remote regions.
Mohammad Radmanesh, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, confirmed that the planned expansion of the special forces will reinforce their leading role in the fight.
"We have developed a four-year Afghan Army development plan that will achieve our goal by 2020. One of these goals is to strengthen and equip the commando forces, and we are currently establishing the commando corps or the special operations corps,” he said.
The expansion will be funded by the estimated $5 billion in aid that Kabul receives from Washington and its allies to fund its security forces. Afghan officials have said one pressing need is better equipment. “Our commando forces have to be strengthened and have to be better equipped,” Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said recently.
Faulkner notes that the Afghan special forces are becoming increasingly operationally independent of NATO forces in the country. “About four out of every five operations are now conducted independent of [NATO] coalition support,” he said. “[This is] proof that using U.S. and NATO counterterrorism personnel to help train, advise, and assist their Afghan partners is an effective strategy.”
In October, the commander of the U.S. and NATO forces, John Nicholson, said in Kandahar that the doubling of the Afghan special forces would be the beginning of the defeat of the Taliban.
However, the Taliban and IS militants show no signs of abandoning the fight. Over recent months, they have increased their attacks throughout Afghanistan, including its beleaguered capital.
In October, the Taliban said in a statement on the occasion of the 16th anniversary of the U.S. attack on their regime that they have not been defeated and thousands of their young people are willing to fight.
Despite repeated claims by Afghan and U.S. officials that IS leadership has been crushed in Afghanistan, the ultra-radical group is far from defeated. This month, IS militants claimed responsibility for an attack on the Shamshad private television station in Kabul.
Qureshi, however, is adamant Afghanistan will overcome these challenges.
"There will be a day when our homeland will be peaceful and stable,” he vowed. “God willing, this day will come, and we commandos will ensure it happens soon.”
Editor’s note: Reporting is added to this story to better reflect some of the challenges and criticism faced by the Afghan security forces including the elite special forces.