The Magazine

Special Operators at Work

Training the Afghan Local Police

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By WILLY STERN
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The Special Ops community begs to differ. I spent a good chunk of time roaming around Afghanistan with the Special Ops community at a variety of secret locations that I’ve been asked not to name. I met with everybody from the enlisted ranks up to generals—Afghan, American, and coalition Special Forces partners from places like Romania and Australia. I was allowed into private sessions and shown the Joint Operations Center. The JOC, as it’s known, has some 20-odd screens displaying real-time operational data about units all over the country.

A side note here on media ethics: We have eyes-in-the-sky in Afghanistan. When our Special Ops call in a precision airstrike and a Hellfire missile conveniently exterminates a Taliban commander with no collateral damage, you can see it all on the screen. Our special operators—men and women, mind you—can also see the Taliban showing up soon thereafter and scattering kids’ toys around the kill zone, or showing up to plant other “evidence” that would lead people to believe innocents have been killed. Their intent is to trick gullible journalists from both the Afghan and Western news agencies into telling a horrific story of civilian casualties. You can’t blame the Taliban for trying, but wouldn’t you think the AP and BBC would be too shrewd to fall for this nonsense? The special operators share some blame; for reasons to some degree beyond their control, they have done a second-rate job in sharing their side of the story.


These special operators are far from perfect. Ditto for the missions they go on. War is messy. There are, at times, civilian casualties, which we fess up to. But here’s a news flash: The Taliban kill far, far more innocents than we do. These special operators are relentlessly aware of who they are and the problems they face, and are constantly trying to improve their tactics by way of protecting civilians. Two U.S. Army officers set the tone, Major General Tony Thomas and his deputy commander, Brigadier General Donald Bolduc. In charge of what? The military loves long-winded names, and these no-nonsense generals lead the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, known by its acronym, NSOCC-A.

After 48 hours of travel, I arrived at the first Special Ops base after midnight, reeking like a piglet, and ran into a distinguished gent in casual dress in the hallway. Later I learned this was Gen. Thomas. This Army Ranger has had a superlative 33-year military career, and served closely with (retired) Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Special Operations community for more than a decade. I heard a lot of nice things about Thomas from his troops in days ahead when nobody was being careful what he said; Thomas left the next day for meetings with allies in Brussels, so I can’t tell you much more of him. The focus here will be on his second-in-command, Gen. Bolduc, a fact that will no doubt embarrass a man who habitually credits others. But it’s Bolduc who fills up my notebooks.

Bolduc is unlike any general I’ve ever met. He grew up on a New England farm, was the first in his family to go to college, and traced the long arc from private to general. He seems to get by on three hours’ sleep, appears fitter than SEALs half his age, is a toe-tapping hard charger—a raconteur who never stops talking, whether the topic is his mom’s homemade maple syrup, or being caught out in a cornfield under a relentless barrage of enemy fire. He is the sort that compulsively runs towards incoming bullets. Gen. Bolduc is revered by his troops and his Afghan partners. After six hard years in country, he is steeped in Afghan culture. You can’t help but like this guy, especially after he hops up onto the StairMaster next to you, plugs in his earbuds, turns on his music, and sings loudly along to ridiculously sappy music.

Although Bolduc doesn’t much like the characterization because he doesn’t have an ounce of pretension in his slight, wiry frame, he’s something of an intellectual. He spent years reading in his hooch deep into the night, immersing himself in counterinsurgency campaigns from conflicts past—think Algeria, Oman, El Salvador, and so on. More to the point, he was part of a tiny group of warrior-scholars who figured out which doctrines worked and then developed a plan to apply these winning strategies to the dysfunctional culture of Afghanistan.

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