Commanding the Commandos

Afghanistan’s National Mission Brigade is leading the fight against terrorists and criminals


It’s hard not to feel at ease with Afghan Col. Khanullah Shuja. He is warm, welcoming and smiles readily. He radiates passion for serving his country and the Soldiers under his command. It’s obvious why they describe him using words such as “brave,” “patient,” “fair” and “intelligent.”

“When I first met him, I instantly wished I had commanders like him my whole career,” said Capt. Hemad, Col. Shuja’s plans officer. “He makes this unit extremely strong.”

Don’t mistake his kindness for weakness, though. Col. Shuja was handpicked as the leader needed to stand up Afghanistan’s premier special operations unit, the National Mission Brigade, and he runs a professional, forward-thinking organization.

It was activated July 31, 2017, with staffing from the ministries of defense and interior and the National Directorate of Security. The unit is part of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command’s continued effort to defeat the Taliban, Daesh, and other terrorists and criminals in the country.

The brigade is focused on responding to national-level crises and conducting intelligence-driven operations.

A unit of Afghanistan’s National Mission Brigade conducts a night training exercise in December 2017. Spc. Jacob Krone/U.S. Army

“Over the last year, security threats throughout Afghanistan have increased. Having a special brigade that can respond rapidly to threats is a great accomplishment for the Afghan Special Security Forces,” said Maj. Gen. Tariq Shah Bahrami, the country’s acting defense minister, in the summer of 2017.

Unipath spoke to Col. Shuja, his staff and his Soldiers, who were honing their skills at a pistol and mortar range. All expressed pride to be part of the brigade and spoke of their admiration and respect for their new commander.

The morning of Col. Shuja’s interview coincided with his daily briefing from his staff. Col. Shuja listened intently, asking his officers pointed questions but also soliciting advice, suggestions and recommendations. Afterward, he addressed his entire staff, praising them for their hard work while encouraging them to exceed the high standards he had set.

When it comes to preparing his troops, he likes to quote the famous U.S. Army commander, Gen. George Patton: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”

Col. Shuja notes that his leadership style has been influenced not just by the time he spent in the United States, but also by his interaction with leaders from other countries: “It’s a combination of leadership styles that I’ve made my own. I would give everything I have to lead these men successfully.”

Here are the highlights of Col. Shuja’s interview with Unipath:

UNIPATH: What do you hope to accomplish leading the National Mission Brigade?

Col. Shuja: I am grateful to lead this unit. I hope to use the knowledge I have received to make this brigade the standard for all special forces units across Afghanistan. We hope to be a role model for other units and the cornerstone of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command. Someday, I hope that we defend not just Afghanistan, but can also become members of peacekeeping operations in other countries as well.

Col. Shuja announces the activation of the National Mission Brigade on July 31, 2017. Lt. Egdanis Torres Sierra/U.S. Navy

UNIPATH: How important is training to the National Mission Brigade?

Col. Shuja: Training is an essential part of military operations. Our resources and technology utilized in tough training scenarios make us different from other Afghan units. We have had the opportunity to train with some of the best quality Soldiers from around the world, including U.S. Special Forces. Our training gives us confidence during battle, understanding that we have the knowledge to fight our enemy, but also awareness that we are a professional force.

UNIPATH: Can you describe units within the Afghan military that have been successful in confronting the nation’s enemies?

Col. Shuja: All Afghan military units have worked extremely hard to be successful since the transition. Many people doubted Afghan security forces, but they have done a great job and remain trustworthy. The Afghan National Army Special Operations forces have faced multiple challenges and continue to make a huge difference. The commando patch we wear is trusted by the people. When we did an operation in Parwan, the local people were scared initially, but when they saw the commando patch on the sleeves on the Soldiers, they knew we were there to keep them safe. They believe in us.

UNIPATH: How is the National Mission Brigade different from other units in the Afghan military?

Col. Shuja: We focus on night operations and rapid deployment. We are available to deploy anywhere in 12 hours. The training we receive, the complicated nature of our missions and our intelligence capabilities set us apart from other Afghan military units. It takes a special kind of Soldier to join a unit like this. We have extremely high standards for our officers and Soldiers.

UNIPATH: How can your country’s multinational coalition partners help bring stability to Afghanistan?

Col. Shuja: Our partners continue to help us with resources, training and equipment. They bolster and enhance our existing capabilities. Coalition forces have brought lots of reconstruction projects and programs to this country that directly help peacekeeping efforts. We need the experience and knowledge from other countries to understand the best ways to bring peace. We’ve sent pilots to other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, to get training, and hopefully someday we can train with Jordanian special forces as well.

UNIPATH: Describe the qualities of an ideal special forces Soldier.

Col. Shuja: Motivated, professional, loyal, brave, strong (mentally and physically) and a believer in the cause and their country.