ARLINGTON, Va. - Afghan special operations will start conducting their own spy missions with new fixed wing aircraft, a top U.S. commando in Afghanistan said Wednesday, adding another critical stepping stone to allow the U.S. to withdraw by 2014.
The U.S. has begun supplying Afghan forces with Swiss-made PC-12 planes, and training local forces to conduct their own Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or ISR missions, says Army Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, the commanding general of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.
ISR and fire-support missions are two critical pieces currently conducted exclusively by coalition troops that the Afghan special forces will need for success following the 2014 U.S. drawdown, he says.
"We will provide them with fixed-wing ISR [planes] so they'll be able to replace us in kind over time," Thomas said. This will likely extend beyond the end of 2014, when President Barack Obama has said the bulk of U.S. combat troops will withdraw from the country.
These unarmed planes will have "full motion video capability," Thomas says. Coalition forces are also training Afghans on armed Mi-17 Russian-made helicopters. These Afghan pilots have been used "on a number of occasions" and "quite successfully" in nighttime raids, the general adds, though not yet in a fire-support role.
"[Their] aviation ability eclipses many of the other nations we work with throughout the world," Thomas says of the burgeoning Afghan air forces. "It's a capability that's developed in quite a hurry but they're demonstrating greater capacity every day."
This continues the U.S. efforts to gradually turn over control of Afghan security to the Afghans. Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference on Wednesday that there are currently no special operations missions conducted without Afghan assistance on the ground, and up to 20 percent are carried out solely by local forces.
There are more than 13,000 U.S. special operators under Thomas' command from every elite unit, including Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Special Forces and special operations Marines. They employ more than 200 aircraft, as well as unmanned ISR drones such as MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers.
The Afghans have successfully deployed nine commando "Kandaks," or battalions similar to U.S. Army Ranger units. At least two of these are operating unilaterally, Thomas says.
And there is plenty of work for them to do.
"The tempo is still relentless," says Thomas. "The difference is it's less us and more our Afghan partners who are picking up the brunt of the operations, and that's a good thing."
"Overall tempo of the enemy is still pretty extraordinary," he says. Roughly 10,000 insurgents have been taken off the battlefield in the last year. More than 3,000 were killed and 6,000 have been detained.
This most recent fighting season has been marked by new tactics among Taliban fighters, who no longer operate in large, platoon-sized elements, opting instead for smaller groups that can blend into populated areas, Thomas says.