Fort Bragg, North Carolina (AFP) June 24, 2009
Even when they are between missions, US special forces dubbed the "green berets" are never far from Afghanistan where they have been fighting for almost eight years.
Unlike other troops, they are highly trained to operate in elite 12-strong autonomous units mostly behind enemy lines, and they usually return time and again to the same regions of Afghanistan relying on a network of carefully cultivated local contacts.
Even during their down time in the United States at the sprawling Fort Bragg military complex in North Carolina, training remains intense and not just to maintain a top-notch level of physical fitness.
Here they have to learn some of the foreign languages spoken on the ground -- Pashtun, Dari and even some Arabic.
And they train with Afghan interpretors, employed by the US Army here, to gain a better understanding of local customs and cultures.
"They are much better prepared for what they are going to encounter than other soldiers," said Colonel Francis Beaudette, chief of staff of the special forces based at Fort Bragg, during a rare visit by a handful of journalists.
The first green berets were deployed in Afghanistan in late 2001, landing behind Taliban lines and aiding the ouster of the Islamic militia which had ruled the country with a hardline interpretation of sharia law for five years.
Now the troops spend six to eight months on assignment in Afghanistan and six to eight months at home in the United States.
"Given our cycle of rotations, we have soldiers here who have already been back to Afghanistan six or seven times. They go back to the same places, to familiar territory. We have lots of experience. It's the same in Iraq," said Beaudette.
In the first months of their Afghan deployment, the green berets contacted, armed and equipped the opposition forces of the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban.
Rare photographs of US forces riding their horses alongside the Northern Alliance men, with messages back to headquarters such as "send Texas saddles and horse feed" have passed into green beret folklore.
Even when they are back at Fort Bragg, the training ensures they are kept on their toes and that thoughts of Afghanistan are never far from their minds.
"We try to replicate as best as possible the terrain in Afghanistan. We go to places like Utah or Nevada. It's high desert, you get high open spaces, you get the sense of navigation," said Colonel James Kraft, commander of the 7th unit of special forces.
"There are Afghan contractors there: they cook, they speak, they interact with the soldiers, so the guys are used to working with interpreters."
The aim is to strengthen the special forces' sense of autonomy and their ability to operate alone, far from their base.
"Often times, that captain is the senior US officer in the region he is in," said Kraft.
"Even if they have radios and communications, we expect that team to make things happen, without asking us all the time 'May I ?'
"They have to be agile. Green berets operate best in shades of grey."
Apart from the obligatory language lessons, the troops also get training in explosives, intelligence gathering, telecommunications and trauma medicine.
On the training ground, sergeant Mike, who could only give his first name, was taking notes as he watched a mortar training exercise, preparing to spend six months of 2010 in an Afghan valley.
"Here, we have cultural awareness classes. We have interpreters who live with us all the time. We learn from them all the time," he said.
Those teams landing in Afghanistan spend a month with the troops they are replacing in order to be presented to the local contacts and authorities.
"And when it's a first deployment (in Afghanistan), we first send in a three-member team for two weeks on an exploratory mission," said Beaudette.
"Ultimately, we have to secure the human terrain," explained Kraft. "What we do is manpower intensive," he said, swiftly adding that it is a system that works.
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