PAKTIKA, Afghanistan — A hundred or so turbaned, bearded Afghans packed the plastic mats outside the fort, staring skeptically at Afghan officials on a makeshift outdoor stage. The officials were making the case for setting up a local police force.
Off to the side, watching silently, were the U.S. special operations troops who had made the meeting possible by flying in the officials and disarming the villagers before they entered the compound.
If all went well, the Americans would later be training the neighborhood-watch-like police force to protect the villagers from the Taliban, and hastening the handover of security responsibility to the Afghans.
The Associated Press got a rare glimpse at the ground level of this U.S. special operations mission – one vastly different from the daring raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, credits increased use of special operations with helping blunt Taliban momentum, largely by taking out militant leaders.
Less well-known is the model Petraeus has supported alongside the expanded raids, whereby special operations troops pair with Afghans to provide protection, while training forces – from local police to Afghanistan's own special operators – to take their place. The fledgling success of such units marks a subtle shift toward Afghan independence, and a possible exit strategy for the U.S.
Senior officials at the White House and in Congress are beginning to speak cautiously of a new special-operations-led model as the way ahead in Afghanistan. Roughly 100,000 U.S. conventional forces would draw down to fewer than 30,000 conventional forces, while special operations forces would mentor local security forces and continue their high pace of kill-and-capture raids against militants.
Three senior administration officials and two officials in Congress laid out the plan on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive strategic discussions.
Under the proposed scenario, special operations troops would keep hunting Taliban and al-Qaida, but most, including U.S. Army Green Berets, Marine Special Operations troops and even Navy SEALs, would mentor and fight alongside Afghans for possibly a decade to come. There is precedent for that kind of train-and-fight force, like the U.S. military mission that started in the Philippines in 2001, where a few hundred U.S. troops are helping Filipino counterterrorist troops battle a homegrown Islamic insurgency.
There would still be 20,000 to 30,000 U.S forces on the ground by the end of 2014, when the Afghans are supposed to be "in the lead" in the fight, one of the senior officials said. But with relatively fewer U.S. troops than the Afghans, the U.S. would be backing them up rather than fighting the battles for them.
It's somewhere between the current counterinsurgency strategy, with large numbers of conventional forces taking and holding territory, and the narrow alternative favored by Vice President Joe Biden during the Obama administration's debate over Afghanistan policy in 2009.
The new hybrid would be distinctly different from the special-operations-led mission of the Bush era, which was mainly focused on training Afghans to help hunt bin Laden, according to officers with several combat tours there since 2003.
Skeptics say it's another form of costly nation-building the U.S. can ill-afford, against an enemy that simply rests and waits until the Americans run out of time, money and manpower.
"Tactically, they're a success, but how do you connect these forces with the Afghan government?" asks retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes. Since most Afghans still don't trust the government, he adds, "What's to stop them fighting for their village, against the government?"
Even the plan's backers worry the White House may draw down conventional troops before the U.S.-backed Afghan special operating forces have a chance to mature, leaving the U.S. special-ops-backed Afghans vulnerable to being overrun and reliant on a skeleton crew of U.S. logistics, communications and intelligence resources.
Petraeus would not say whether a special operations-led model was one of the options he planned to present to the White House in advance of President Barack Obama's deadline to begin drawing down U.S. forces in July.
But in an interview with the AP in Kabul, Petraeus had high praise for the Afghans.
"Targeted intelligence-driven operations are increasingly led by Afghan special operations forces" with little American help, Petraeus said. Such Afghan-led forces conduct three to four raids a week against militant targets in the capital, he said.
Petraeus, now in line to become CIA director, was behind a push to increase special-ops troops in 2009 and 2010, together with the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
There are now some 10,000 U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan – roughly 4,000 "direct action" forces that target militants, and some 6,000 troops like Green Berets that mentor Afghan commandos and local policing forces, according to multiple U.S. officials. These numbers would probably hold steady as conventional forces draw down.
The top tier of the Afghan forces under this kind of U.S. tutelage is known as the Afghan Commandos. The commandos run operations that mirror the bin Laden raid in many ways: helicoptering into missions to search a village for a suspect, storming a target in large numbers to quickly overwhelm the enemy.
A U.S. special operations officer who has worked with the Kabul-based commandos for six months said they were already planning and executing most of their own missions when he arrived, only calling on the Americans if they needed helicopters, extra firepower or occasional advice. The commandos would headline a new Afghan special operations command, to be established in the next few months.
Commando battalions are still uneven, depending on leadership. Some don't show up on time, and some still use hashish and opium on duty, multiple special operations officers concede.
But they perform well under fire, one U.S. officer who fought alongside them said. And their progress has freed up some U.S. forces to begin a separate training mission for a unit patterned after U.S. Green Berets.
Only 150 strong so far, the Afghan "Tan Berets" work in teams of 18 to 20 men, according to their Afghan commander, Lt. Col. Mohmand Zabihullah.
Zabihullah said special forces soldiers must have high school literacy levels, much higher than the commandos' required third-grade level. They must also survive a tougher physical fitness selection process, and a three-month training program that weeds out roughly a third of the applicants, he said.
Anyone caught using drugs is expelled, he said.
The final piece is the Afghan local police, designed as a paid, armed village security force, intended both to empower locals to protect their own territory and to give them an economic alternative to working for the Taliban.
That's what the U.S. forces were trying to get off the ground in Paktika, and by the end of the meeting, the tribesmen had agreed to the program.
Previous such forces have gone rogue because of lack of oversight. U.S. and Afghan officials insist they've now got the formula right, by giving local Afghan officials some control over membership, and by vetting every potential inductee with background checks and biometric testing to keep out known militants or criminals. The U.S. special forces units in the village also provide oversight.
More than 5,000 Afghans have gone through the three weeks of training, to serve in the 40-plus districts that have agreed to the program.
U.S. officials are not sure what difference that will make in the spring fighting campaign that has just started.
But according to multiple intelligence intercepts, the Taliban ordered their foot soldiers to fight through the winter with the key goal of destroying the Afghan local police.
The U.S. special operators training the Afghans call that the highest compliment.