12 August 2019

D.S.M was right, Special Operations Forces will continue their mission in the Afghanistan theatre of operations throughout 2019

Daniel Ilie

I recently wrote in an analysis published on the D.S.M website at the beginning of 2019 that the Romanian Army’s Special Operation Forces (SOF) will maintain their presence in the Afghanistan theatre of operations for the entirety of the year.

Image source: Mediafax

Among others, I mentioned that this will be determined also by the results of the eventual NATO or International Coalition conferences to generate the force, during which voluntarily assumed contributions are expected, depending on own interests and strategic objectives, within the larger context of already assumed commitments to the coalition’s common efforts in Afghanistan. I added that an eventual withdrawal can only happen if certain conditions are met.

The fact that the result of these activities to set in detail the new needs and operation requirements and to eventually reconfigure missions in Afghanistan (both those of counselling and assistance, as well as the anti-terrorist one unilaterally executed by the US) was favourable to the continuation of missions into 2019 was proven by the statement of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, during the NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels, between June 25 and 27, 2019.

He announced that the Allies have already generated the military capacities necessary to complete the deficits resulted from the planning and analysis of the reconfigured mission (a process briefly mentioned in the analysis D.S.M published at the beginning of the year), for the following the rotation of forces (most probably between the second half of 2019 and the beginning of 2020). He also confirmed that Afghan security forces will receive financial support until 2024.

The secretary general’s statement was strengthened by the following affirmation: “We will stay in Afghanistan for as long as it will be necessary to ensure that the country never again becomes a sanctuary of international terrorists”.

Even US President Donald Trump, who has expressed for some time the desire to bring the troops back from Afghanistan, after a war which started 18 years ago, said in a FOX NEWS interview in July 2019 that, even if he would prefer to just withdraw the troops, he must listen to his generals, “very talented career soldiers”, who claim for a long time that America should fight terrorism not on its own territory, but rather in Afghanistan.

Nuancing his initial position on withdrawing the troops, the US president said that “the problem is that this (Afghanistan) seems to be a laboratory for terrorists. I call it the Harvard of terrorists”, adding that although he reduced troops from 16,000 to just 9,000, “something not a lot of people know about”, he is thinking about maintaining “a very powerful intelligence capabilities community” in the theatre.

Romania approved in December 2018 its plan on deploying troops on missions and operations abroad for 2019. A number of 1,902 Romanian Army troops are taking part this year in missions and operations abroad, 127 more when compared with 2018. It seems that the main effort remains concerted around participating with forces and capabilities at the NATO operation in Afghanistan – the Resolute Support Mission (RSM). The Romanian Army’s SOF are also part of them.

The fact that, for Romania, the strategic interests and objectives on taking part in the mission have not changed was confirmed by the Romanian defence minister who, according to a recent statement, re-affirmed his support for the effort to stabilize Afghanistan and the need to consolidate Afghan security and defence institutions, including education institutions dedicated to these vital areas.

But what are we doing in Afghanistan and what is Romania’s strategic interest?

Firstly, Romania is a NATO member and we should understand the reason for which this alliance is taking part in the biggest military operation in its history in Afghanistan.

The NATO secretary general summarized this quite simply during the press conference following the aforementioned defence ministers meeting. He said that the Alliance has been in Afghanistan ever since the 9/11 attacks, because it realized that the country became a platform to train terrorists and launch attacks against allied countries. And these attacks, initially executed in the US, continued in Madrid, London and other places. The purpose of NATO and their coalition partners was and will be to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for international terrorism. It will not be easy and everyone must pay this price, according to the secretary general.

As for the other alliance partners, Romania’s main strategic interest when it comes to preventing international terrorism is to protect its national interests and security.

On the other hand, as all of the alliance’s newer members, Romania is trying to prove, in a very competitive environment I would add, that it is a reliable partner and carries out its obligations as best as possible. Not lastly, this effort is seen by national authorities as a way to strengthen the strategic partnership with the United States.

Which ultimately makes sense, because it is the price we need to pay as Alliance members so that, if and when we will be in need, we can request and receive the support of allies to ensure the security and defence of our national territory. At least these are our expectations.

The security situation in Afghanistan

Just while I was writing the first rows of this piece, on the first morning of July, the Afghan capital, Kabul, was rocked by a powerful car bombing, followed by an attempt from insurgents to execute a complex attack on the Afghan Defence Ministry, near a crowded area in the city’s downtown.

The attack resulted in collateral victims, with at least 16 dead and tens of wounded (more than 50 children were attending classes in a school near the car bombing). It was followed several days later by other attacks, just as bloody, which also had tens of women and children wounded: one executed in North Afghanistan in the province of Faryab (mortar strike attack), and the other in the province of Ghazni (car bombing).

Only several days before, the Taliban had carried out another attack in northern Afghanistan, in the Baghlan province, which killed at least 25 Afghan security forces members, while the Resolute Support Mission announced that two US special forces soldiers from the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) deployed in the country were killed in specific missions in the province of Uruzgan. The country’s east was also affected, with the security situation seemingly deteriorating in the province of Nangarhar, where both Taliban insurgents and ISIS-Korasan continue to carry out attacks.

Let us remember that since the beginning of the year, nine Romanian soldiers from the 300th Force Protection Battalion “Saint Andrew” were wounded during missions in the Kandahar province, in southern Afghanistan, following attacks with improvised explosive devices.

These are only several elements which, at least for those of us who are far away from this hot zone and who do not have access to classified data and information, bring the question of whether the strategy adopted in Afghanistan by the main strategic actors, the International Coalition, NATO, the US or the Afghan Government is actually working, almost 18 years after the start of the “war”.

A more exact evaluation of the security situation in this country could indicate how efficient that strategy is.

However, both the US Army and the Resolute Support Mission have stopped, since last year, monitoring the insurgent’s territorial control level or their influence, or those the government forces have on districts, as it presented only a limited strategical importance in decision making.

Afghan national defence and security forces are maintaining, it seems, some defensive posture based on organizing and maintaining static control points on the different communications channels, while the air forces, despite their evolution, are inefficient on the battlefield. In Afghanistan, the most lethal force on the ground are SOFs which continue to fight against the insurgent networks, trying to liberate the territories occupied by them.

Even if peace negotiations with the Taliban – revolving around fighting terrorism, the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil, intra-Afghan dialogue and permanent cessation of hostilities – seem to have progressed recently, the latest news shows us that, apparently, once the Taliban launched their spring-summer offensive campaign, the number of violent incidents has multiplied. The Taliban are actually consolidating their positions on the ground, in some place replacing the government’s administration with their own, imposing Sharia law and even collecting taxes.

The presidential elections have been already postponed twice, and are now planed for the end of September 2019, while the indefinite postponement of provincial elections and those for the People’s Chamber (Wolesi Jirga) in Ghazni make the latter still remain incomplete, nine months after the October 2018 parliamentary elections. Causes of financial nature and security concerns are brought up in this case.

The Taliban want peace, but only on their terms and have their main objective set to finalize an eventual retreat of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

The intra-Afghan dialogue between politicians, members of the civil society, including women, and representatives of the Taliban, sponsored by Germany and Qatar, on July 7 and 8, 2019 in Doha, is considered an important step towards peace and the end of the Afghan war.

In these conditions, concerns remain justified. Will the security situation in Afghanistan become better, or deteriorate? Will peace talks be successful, after all, and lead to a timetable to withdraw foreign troops after the end of the long war? It remains to be seen.


Taking into account everything explained earlier, I think that the SOFs will be among the last national contingents which will be repatriated from Afghanistan, not earlier than 2020. And this is based on the principle that, usually, in hotspots on the globe where military actions are carried out, the SOFs are the first capabilities deployed and the last to be repatriated.

Let us not forget that they are elite forces destined and organized, equipped, instructed to carry out special operations, with unconventional tactics, techniques and engagement procedures, and can operate clandestinely or hidden in sensible areas or hostile territory.

SOFs are, currently, the best suited to grant military assistance to a host nation in its efforts to operationalize its own security and defence capabilities.

And such missions are still being carried out in Afghanistan, on one hand the non-combat NATO Resolute Support Mission, which aims to instruct, council and assist Afghan national security and defence forces, and on the other hand the US “Freedom Sentinel” mission”, which includes an important anti-terrorist task.

We should remind that a Romanian Army SOF contingent of 70 troops are currently deployed in the hot area in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan.

And because the Romanian troops have proven to be great ambassadors for Romania’s image in the world, it would be a shame for such an important effort, which required many sacrifices to not be followed by a development of trade of business relations between Romania and Afghanistan, by exploiting business opportunities which will appear, earlier or later, in the relation between the two states.

Translated by Ionut Preda