CAMP SCORPION, Afghanistan (AP) — "Attention! Attention! You are surrounded by Afghan forces. Come out with your hands up."
The order barked by an Afghan soldier launched a training exercise last week that pitted members of the nation's growing elite force against actors posing as Taliban fighters.
Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coalition have stepped up training of the Afghan special forces unit to fill the vacuum that will be left by foreign troops slated to end their combat mission in 2014. In the future, it will be Afghan special forces countering insurgents in villages across the country.
As the force expands, they will also lead more of the controversial house searches — something that could mitigate Afghan President Hamid Karzai's intense opposition to the nighttime raids by international troops that Afghans have found culturally offensive.
Even though Afghan troops have been along for the more than 2,800 raids during the past year, Karzai has argued that the teams often treat innocent Afghans as if they were insurgents and violate citizens' privacy in the conservative Afghan society.
Karzai wants all raids halted. He wants foreign troops to stop entering Afghan homes. The thorny issue is being negotiated by U.S. and Afghan officials crafting a strategic agreement that will govern how remaining American forces operate in Afghanistan after 2014.
A recent national assembly of elders advised the Karzai government to allow the raids to continue as long as they are conducted solely by Afghans. If so, many more Afghan special forces soldiers need to be trained.
Neither NATO nor the Afghan Ministry of Defense would disclose how many Afghan special forces had been trained or how large the force will become. Jalaluddin Yaftali, a special forces team leader at the training site, said the force currently numbered 1,000 to 1,500.
"It takes time. It's like nation-building — an endless task. It will take years, but the will is there and right now the force is growing," said Afghan army Col. Mohammad Farid Ahmadi.
"The program started two years ago, but now we are jointly working with the coalition forces to Afghanize as soon as possible. We have already started. It's growing."
So far, most have been recruited from the Afghan National Army Commandos, a quick reaction force regarded as the most professional unit in the Afghan army. Commandos receive 10 weeks of training on top of the roughly 10 weeks they completed to become an Afghan soldier. Moreover, Afghan soldiers usually serve about four years as commandos before being selected for special forces training.
Their training is further refined while partnered with American forces. Eventually, they will be tasked with a variety of operational missions, including night raids, throughout the country.
"It not only takes a long time to select the right people for the job, but also to bring them through a training program so they are capable of operating with other special forces or on their own," German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a NATO spokesman, said at the training site on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
While some are already conducting solo operations, the Afghan special forces will continue to need coalition air power, intelligence and other support for years to come, he said.
Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. political scientist who advised the commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, said it's hard to rush special forces training.
"The Afghan program, which was first conceptualized in 2009 and established in 2010, is relatively new. I remember participating in the brainstorming sessions as we helped build the Afghan special forces," Jones said.
"Focusing on numbers, rather than quality, and trying to mass produce Afghan special forces would be a serious mistake. I'm not suggesting anyone is doing this yet, but it should be monitored very closely."
The Afghan soldiers conducting the training exercise crouched in shadows at the foot of man-made hills surrounding the practice compound. The residential compound resembled a western cowboy movie set.
"Drop your weapons!" the Afghan soldier barked into a bullhorn. "Keep your hands raised and come out."
Trying to give the occupants time to cooperate, the more than 20-man Afghan special forces team waited patiently, their guns drawn. When nobody came out, they tossed two harmless grenades that made loud bangs when they landed in front of the house.
A few minutes later, an actress covered in a red shawl slowly emerged with her hands raised. The soldier with the bullhorn asked her to reveal her face so the troops could be sure she was a woman and not a man. When it was clear that she was female, she was led away to be searched by a female Afghan soldier.
Having male troops search females is taboo in Afghanistan. So is touching a family's Quran, the Muslim holy book, or entering a home without being invited — things that foreign forces have learned in the decade-long war.
Soon after the woman left, two men walked from the house with their hands held high. Making sure they weren't armed, the troops ordered them to lift their shirts and pant legs. The would-be Afghan suspects then were cuffed and taken away.
"We are asking the Defense Ministry to make one special forces platoon of just female soldiers so they can go talk to the families, the children, the women," Yaftali said. "If you are a female, you can talk openly with the family."
It was clear to onlookers that the more than 20 Afghan special forces soldiers who conducted the house search and did a live ammunition training exercise with M4 rifles and 9mm pistols were the best of the elite force. With their dark glasses, night vision headsets, microphones and radios, they looked just like their U.S. Special Operations forces counterparts.
Jones said the first Afghan special forces soldiers trained were very competent because they were recruited directly from the Afghan National Army Commandos.
"In practical terms, this suggests that there will be some variation in the competence of Afghan special forces by 2014," Jones said. "Some will be fully capable ... but others may struggle."