By SEAN D. NAYLOR — The Special Forces captain who worked with the first Afghan National Army Special Forces team had nothing but praise for his ANA counterparts during a talk at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual symposium.
Capt. Mike Penn, who between February and August led a 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) operational detachment–alpha, or A-team, in Kandahar province’s Khakrez district, said for the first three months his 20-person element had no Afghan partners as they tried to build bonds with the elders of the rural district. That all changed roughly halfway through his deployment.
“Three months in, we got something incredible, we got an Afghan National Army Special Forces detachment, built along the same lines as us,” he said. That team – number 1111 – was the first Afghan special forces team to emerge from a training program devised by U.S. Special Forces at Camp Morehead in Wardak province.
Penn said the Afghan special forces proved their worth in the “village stability” program that his team was engaged in. Village stability operations involves embedding a special operations team in a rural Afghan community that has no other form of protection from the insurgents. In some cases, it also involves the creation of a locally recruited police force.
“There’s been a lot of talk lately about how village stability is a game changer in Afghanistan, but inside of village stability, the Afghan special forces are truly a game changer – extremely well trained competent leaders,” Penn said.
When that first Afghan A-team arrived in Khakrez, they gave Penn’s team their opinion about the way ahead in the district. “They told us how we should approach our problem and what we should be doing,” Penn said. “It blew us away, because they actually laid out the same approach that we’d already been doing.”
It didn’t take long for Penn to realize the value of his new Afghan partners. “We built a lot of rapport [with the locals], we worked really well with the Afghans and we’d gotten very close to them, [but]there was one thing we were missing – we would never be Afghans,” he said. “When these [ANA SF] guys hit the ground with the same approach, they had an immediate impact, immediate rapport, immediate acceptance and trust among the locals.”
“The thing that they provided the most was a positive male role model,” Penn said. After 30 years of war, the locals were unused to the image projected by the Afghan special operators. “Nobody in that area had ever seen a true leader, they’d never seen what right looks like, they’d never seen somebody competent and strong in a position of power, and controlling their own destiny.
“When we walked through the villages with these Afghan National Army Special Forces guys, you could see the kids’ eyes light up, the elders’ eyes light up, like, ‘Oh my God, here’s a guy that looks like me, talks like me, has been through what I’ve been through – he’s my countryman – and he’s completely in control of his own destiny.’ ”