The day after the Taliban’s ambitious attack on Kabul, Afghans began replacing their portrait photographs on Facebook with the anonymous image of a handsome police commando in bloodstained fatigues, or using it for montage tributes to the military and subtle digs at foreign forces.
Coordinated assaults on the Afghan capital’s parliament, diplomatic enclave and a military camp on April 15 caught the city by surprise, but so did the response of the Afghan security forces, who perhaps for the first time ever ended an insurgent assault with only minimal help from their foreign mentors. When the gunfire and explosions finally died down, they were followed by an unprecedented outpouring of support for a police and army more used to being on the receiving end of complaints about corruption or public worries about drug use and absenteeism.
One image showed the Afghan commando, assault rifle in hand, strolling calmly down a street, next to a photo of a NATO soldier dashing for cover. Underneath was written: “This is not only a photo, but a bitter reality. We thank our soldiers with all our hearts, and press their hands in gratitude.”
Elite units are only a tiny percentage of Afghanistan’s security forces, but they have become a focus of the hope that Afghanistan will be able to hold off the Taliban after 2014, when Western combat troops are due home. Ordinary police and soldiers are ill-equipped to deal with the type of complex attacks in urban areas that have become an insurgent trademark.
The best are handpicked from the ranks of ordinary police, army and intelligence service, said Colonel Jalaluddin Yaftali, head of the army’s special forces unit. An invitation to try out for the unit after rigorous physical and mental vetting is highly prized, and not all make the grade.
“When they don’t make it through training, I see tears in their eyes,” Yaftali said. “When Afghans see their national pride is in a job, they want to go and do it.”
Hamidullah, the commando in the photos, had no idea he had become the new face of Afghan heroism until the Guardian got exceptional permission to interview him at his unit’s heavily-guarded compound near a stadium the Taliban once used for public executions.
A modest man, who looked baffled and slightly embarrassed by the attention, he said his job was fulfillment of a childhood ambition.
“When I was a boy, it was my dream to be a policeman and carry a gun. And now that I am older I have a pistol and a Kalashnikov; I go to war and face the enemy. This is real now,” he said on the steps of his barracks. “I am a little fearful before entering a building that has suicide attackers in it, but when I get inside, and throw one grenade after another, the fear goes away. Only God knows what will happen.”
Many units were only set up in the past few years, but insurgent attacks are regular in Afghanistan and the troops — who include a tiny handful of women — have been growing in capability and confidence, bound together by a string of shared battles.
“When my friends are killed I feel I should become a martyr too ... In such a situation, you don’t know what to do; you lose yourself,” said Hamidullah, who was still wearing the same stained fatigues from the photos as he prepared to escort a wounded comrade home.
“What is the use of living anyway, after they killed my friends? I had been with my friends for four years, being in the trenches, sleeping in the same place, eating together,” he said.
Generous resources poured in by the West, whose special forces have been playing a mentoring role, have been critical to creating a force Yaftali believes can match any in the region.
“In the United States, we have some truths we abide by when building special operations forces,” said Andrew Exum, a former US army officer who fought in Afghanistan, advised top commanders there and is now a fellow with the Center for a New American Security. “Namely, that quality matters more than quantity, humans matter more than hardware, and that special operations forces cannot be mass produced.”
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