The Afghan commandos based in Helmand Province have been fighting heavily in northern districts, including Sangin over the past year. As US forces leave Camp Leatherneck and British forces leave Camp Bastion, the Afghan 7th Commando Battalion at adjacent Camp Shorabak will remain, along with the regular Afghan National Army, running operations by road and by air (when helicopters are available).
As US and NATO troops depart Camp Bastion and Camp Leatherneck in Helmand, Afghan commandos garrisoned at adjacent Camp Shorabak continue operations to push back insurgents in the province.
Colonel Zabiullah Momand, Commander, 7th Special Operations Kandak, Helmand said “If we come under ambush we have to keep moving, and if one of us is injured or our vehicle is damaged, then we will stop and establish security, but if not, we have to continue to our destination.”
This Afghan Special Forces convoy is preparing to travel east to Gereshk, where two days earlier a suicide bomber attacked an Afghan army convoy on its way to Sangin in the north, killing two policemen and injuring several Afghan army members.
Commander Zabiullah says “Gunners have to be alert.”
Gunners keep an eye on roadside tree lines or compounds for enemy shooters throughout the 40-minute drive, but the primary threat is suicide bombers. During the same week a vehicle-borne IED or VBIED, a truck packed with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber, injured several policemen in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
The commandos are here to meet with the Gereshk police chief and District Governor about an upcoming operation. But today’s mission is also a show of force. A display of solidarity with the police will have meaning for the locals and potential adversaries.
Mohammad Fahim Mosazoy, District Governor, Nahri Saraj said “As you know, the Taliban attacked Helmand’s northern districts of Sangin, Musa Qala and Nowzad with large forces. Fortunately the Taliban have failed in their many attempts to attack Gereshk.”
Security is good in Gereshk, Helmand at the moment. This could change. The District Governor says that without the help of the military, the security could turn.
This commando battalion has been operating in Helmand for the past five years. They serve as a quick-reaction force as well as perform night operations targeting insurgents and high-level criminals.
However, no Afghan helicopters are dedicated exclusively to this battalion, so the commandos must often get rides from US Special Operations helicopters, or travel by road, risking IEDs and ambush.
By road they lose the advantage of surprise and they lose men who die from lack of air medevacs.
At a recent ceremony the commander remembers eight fallen commandos -calling them martyrs – and tells the men their sacrifice is not in vain.
Commander Zabiullah said “The day will come when the people of Afghanistan will understand and will hug you and thank you for your sacrifices. I am sure we are not far from that day.”
Many of the battalion’s casualties are due to fighting in Sangin and the other northern districts.
“In Sangin District, in Showzada village, we lost six people, but in the end we killed the Taliban,” said a service memebr of the Afghan commando.
Most likely Sangin will continue to be a contested area. Even in the possible case of broad political peace settlements with the Taliban and other major insurgent groups, those involved in the local illicit narcotics economy will still fight to control Sangin in order to maintain poppy growth, supply routes and opium production.
Commander Zabiullah said “Sangin has a very strategic location. The enemies were thinking “if they take Sangin, they take Kajaki and Musa Qala as well.”
The enlisted commandos are paid the equivalent of 300 US dollars a month. Some get leave every three months, but others in specialised units work for longer stretches. They define their high-risk occupation as a duty to country.
An Afghan commando service member said “The only thing that I have in my mind is that this country definitely needs us. And when a bridge or a road is being blown up by the enemies, or the enemies harass or oppress the people, it is our responsibility to bring the area security in the best possible way. “
The psychological impact of the heavy fighting has been considerable. Our team witnessed commandos in the barracks suffering from chronic nightmares, reliving traumatic moments in their sleep, and we were told of one commando who had taken his own life.
“It saddens me that one day my comrade is alive and fighting beside me and then he is dead. But my hope is that we can have a peaceful country for our people,” an Afghan commando service member said.
Another service member of the commando forces said “The country needs to be protected. Yes definitely people die, people get injured, and people become sad, but still, the country has the right to be served.”
This is the script of a NATOChannel story by Jeff Holden, with Sayed Mansoor Alam.