Kabul, Afghanistan – “Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. For Afghanistan’s Special Forces, the 2,500-year-old doctrine remains true today.
But some secrets belong to others.
Crouched in the darkness around a house being targeted on the outskirts of a village in Parwan province, the Afghan Special Forces that Al Jazeera had joined were relying on the secrets of other armies every second.
From the moment the commander got the call to say the suspect was in place, to the banging on the door by heavily armed soldiers, foreigners were watching every second of the operation. Drones with cameras and infra-red detectors monitor every one of their missions.
Handing a war over to another army is not as easy as replacing one set of soldiers with another. It tests trust, logistics and bank accounts. Nowhere more so than with special operations.
IRS – Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance – is still largely in the hands of Western militaries here. When Afghan Special Forces soldiers career out of their bases in heavily armed convoys, they are acting on information provided from higher-ups – who are, in turn, provided the information from foreign allies with sophisticated spying equipment.
Afghanistan has its own intelligence services, and they can and do track phone calls, but it pales in comparison to the technology being used by the US military.
“If we want them to function well, we have to involve them in target planning and execution, plus transfer IRS capabilities to some degree to them,” Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former spy chief, told Al Jazeera. His viewpoint has been carved out by years of working side-by-side with the CIA – since the armed uprising against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s; an uprising equipped and enabled by the US intelligence organisation.
“I know we will never get full IRS capability, that’s Silicon Valley. But we have to be trusted with some equipment,” said Saleh. “For example, you go on an operation and you are fired at. Then the Afghans are totally reliant on the Americans for interception, tactical interception. Without having that tactical capability, they will always – regardless of how motivated, how highly spirited they are – they will be crippled.”
During raids by the elite Afghan fighters, it is only their NATO mentors who have the capability and clearance to call in airstrikes if things go wrong.
Al Jazeera asked the Unit Commander, while driving to a night operation, what he would do if they came under attack and didn’t have a vehicle of Norwegian Special Forces driving behind him – given that he cannot call in airstrikes. “We would just have to fight our way out,” he replied.