US troops train for both combat and conversation
Two young American soldiers in combat gear sit at a small table in a concrete block building, politely but insistently questioning a 66-year-old Afghan actor playing the role of a village elder.
Outside, in the thick red mud of a remote Fort Carson valley, other soldiers crouch in defensive positions, peering into their rifle sights in the cold morning. But inside, the soldiers are learning to negotiate, rather than shoot, trying to coax information from the Afghan elder about bomb-makers in a nearby village.
The soldiers are among about 4,000 members of Fort Carson's 1st Brigade Combat Team and supporting units who will deploy to Afghanistan this summer. They're practicing counterinsurgency tactics, cultivating trust and cooperation with the Afghan people at the same time they wage war on the insurgents.
The Army's top commanders and planners say that strategy is the key to success in Afghanistan.
"Understanding the culture, and the impact of your actions on the cultures, is so essential to mission success that you won't succeed without it," Gen. George W. Casey, the Army chief of staff, said during a visit to Fort Carson this month.
The strategy, detailed in a 2006 Army manual, is a dramatic change in U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, shifting the focus from the enemy to the population, said Conrad Crane, director of the Army Military History Institute at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
"If you work with the people, the people are going to give you the intelligence you need for the next operation," said Crane, the lead author of the new doctrine. "It's a revolutionary type of intelligence."
The success of the approach will be measured by how much support and information the soldiers get, he said. "Are they telling you where the explosives are, are they telling you where the bad guys are?"
The strategy is getting its first major test in Afghanistan in Helmand province, where 10,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops pushed the Taliban out of the town of Marjah in February.
The allies are now trying to win over the townspeople with good governance, public services and aid.
Making it work in the long run will be tough, said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The basic level of cultural knowledge and language skills the soldiers are getting might not be enough to navigate through Afghanistan's intricate web of ethnic and tribal groups, he said.
But any level of skills will help, Nelson said, noting, "There didn't used to be any cultural training."
At Fort Carson, several hundred soldiers from the 1st Brigade are being schooled in the details of Afghan religion, history, geography and tribal structure and taking lessons in Dari, one of Afghanistan's languages.
They'll learn between 600 and 1,500 Dari words, including basic greetings, requests for IDs and friendly questions like "How are you doing" and "How is your family," said Mowafiq Al-Anazi, an associate dean at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.
"We see language and culture very inextricably intertwined," said Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, commandant at the institute. "You're learning a language in order to be able to commucate and understand communication, and to do that you have to be able to place the words and language in the cultural context."
The soldiers still train for combat, too. After meeting with the village elder in the Fort Carson exercise, the platoon was ambushed a few miles away by other soldiers playing the role of Taliban fighters. In a chaotic gunbattle waged with blanks, the shouting and cursing platoon overcame the attackers and summoned a Black Hawk helicopter to evacuate a soldier with a make-believe wound.
The next day, another platoon attacked targets in a live-fire exercise, unleashing an ear-splitting barrage with automatic rifles, machine guns and anti-tank weapons and calling in Apache helicopters to blast the target with missiles and cannons.
Veterans and relative newcomers in the 1st Brigade say both combat training and cultural training will help when they get to Afghanistan.
"If you get the people on your side, the enemy will go away," said Command Sgt. Maj. Martin Kelley, a 24-year Army veteran who has served three deployments to Iraq as well as previous stints in Bosnia and Kuwait.
Second Lt. Richard Groat, who negotiated with the village elder and then led the platoon as it fought off the mock Taliban attack, said it was his first patrol and felt like the real thing.
"This process provides experience for me that I don't have," he said.
Ahmad Shah Alam, who played the role of the village elder in the negotiation exercise, said the scenario was realistic, and that the brushy hills and snowy mountain backdrop of Fort Carson give the soldiers a good sense of what it's like to be in Afghanistan.
"I feel like I was home," said Alam, a professional actor who appeared in the 2007 movie "Kite Runner" in a role called "man in the park."
Alam lived in Afghanistan until 1979, when the former Soviet Union invaded. He was out of the country on business at the time and hasn't been back.
He said he feels it's his duty to help the Americans fighting insurgents in Afghanistan.
"This is very tough," he said. "I do not wish to be an American soldier."
Associated Press Writer Brooke Donald contributed to this report from Monterey, Calif.