Soldiers train in mock village in NM desert

Wooing Afghan hearts and minds
Bliss soldiers train in mock village in NM desert
By Robert Gray, El Paso Inc.

Afghan mullah Abdul Ghafari aims his gun at the suspected thief, squeezes the trigger and fires.

Watching the “execution” are soldiers from Fort Bliss, members of the Bulldog Brigade, also known as the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.

Ghafari tells the soldiers that the execution is in accordance with Shariah law, and in the best interest of the community.

But almost everything in front of the soldiers is make believe, staged on streets of a replica Afghan market built in the New Mexico desert 145 miles west of El Paso.

The exercise is designed to expose soldiers to what they may experience in Afghanistan, and teach them how to react. It also teaches a more subtle lesson: that a mullah committed to Shariah law is likely connected to the Taliban.

It’s part of 17 days of training that continues until the end of the month, designed to teach the Bulldog Brigade about counterinsurgency and how to fight it.

It’s not real, but the soldiers say it might as well be.

One said he began hyperventilating and having flashbacks the first time he entered the mock market and village, populated by more than 150 role-players in authentic dress.

Weeks before “executing” the thief, Ghafari was home in Sacramento, Calif. Four years ago he was in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was born and has lived most of his life.

Far from being a Taliban mullah, Ghafari worked for the United Nations in Afghanistan as a sort of goodwill representative, promoting things like parents sending their kids to school.

Ghafari came to the United States to be closer to family, and learned from a friend about the opportunity to work as a role-player.

“I am very happy to help the U.S. Army learn the culture. It helps the U.S. Army and the people in Afghanistan stay safe,” Ghafari told El Paso Inc. through an interpreter.

Dangerous deployment
Fresh from Operation Bulldog Brawl, a month-long training exercise designed to turn the brigade into an efficient fighting machine, the brigade’s 3,300 soldiers are now learning Afghani social skills.

They interact with the Pashto- and Dari-speaking population of the replica village and market, something they will have to do for real when they deploy to the dangerous southern region of Afghanistan next year.

But by the time the brigade ships out, it will be armed with a breadth of training that has become rare in the U.S. Army.

The Bulldog Brigade, which came to Fort Bliss last year, is one of the Army’s first to have two years between deployments, rather than just one year.

That brutal one-to-one rotation had become the norm.

“Units have had to train their butts off during that period in order to get ready,” said the brigade’s commander, Col. Christopher Cavoli.

“So we found ourselves burning the candle while deployed and then, for much of the period back, burning the candle, too. So you’re constantly burning the candle at both ends,” he said.

That led commanders to train their soldiers for specific missions only, Cavoli said.

Skills fundamental to the Army deteriorated: artillery, mobile armored warfare, large-scale offenses and mobile command and control.

The longer time between deployments also gives the Army the opportunity to capitalize on the experience that junior and non-commissioned officers have gained since U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan in 2001, he said.

“We’ve got a really experienced Army at this point and, by having a lot of dwell time, it gives you the ability to milk out that experience and transfer it to the new soldiers,” Cavoli said.

Across the Army, he says, that will mean soldiers who fight better and wars that are prosecuted better.

“So the question is, what do I do with all that dwell time, and the answer is I really drill down,” he said.

Hollywood effects
Cavoli said he used his training budget to bring the Bulldogs out to the Playas Training and Research Center in a remote section of southern New Mexico.

He hired a private government contractor to run the scenario. He said he couldn’t say exactly how much it cost.

The contractor, Strategic Operations, based out of San Diego, has been waging fake war for more than six years.

Hollywood-style special effects are used to replicate the look, feel and smell of war. Limbs are blown off. There are rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombers, elaborate sets, burned flesh, squirting blood.

Since the beginning of 2009, the defense contractor has done $12-million worth of business with the government, according to data compiled by the U.S. General Services Administration.

According to Brian Howe, combat training coordinator for Strategic Operations, the company recruits most of its role-players from California, which is home to the largest Arabic speaking population in the nation, he said.

The company bused in about 150 role-players to populate the market and village.

“You’re trying to stick to the scenario, you’re trying to make it authentic, but you go out in that very rural village and you won’t have bottled water. The reality is these guys are from California, they drink bottled water,” Howe said. “You have to make it real but you also have to take care of people.”

Sometimes, he said, soldiers get too caught up in the training. A few role-players have been bruised, and one sprained their thumb at Playas.

“If you allow yourself to be part of it, it will scare you and you will jump and you get excited by it; it’s all fake, you know it’s fake, but you suspend disbelief – allow it to be real. That is what this training does,” he said.

“I’ve seen medics just freeze, I’ve seen them throw up. Soldiers cry.”

Stress and relief
At a “white cell meeting” held at 5:30 p.m. last Monday at the training center, Cavoli and his senior leadership dissected how the previous 12 hours of training had gone. Then they reviewed the upcoming 12 hours in 15-minute increments.

During meetings held every morning and evening, modifications are made to the scenario to make it more stressful for the soldiers and teach them lessons.

In that morning’s meeting, Cavoli learned soldiers were not searching vehicles properly at a checkpoint.

The plan: Just after dark, a pickup truck will be driven to the checkpoint. A 20-foot fireball created by propane gas will explode out the back of the truck to simulate a vehicle-borne attack from an improvised explosive device.

While the soldiers are distracted, a roadside bomb will be installed on the dirt road that leads from the mock market to the village.

As the white cell meeting continues, the brigade’s mascot, Gunnery Sgt. Chester, a 100-pound American bulldog the brigade adopted from an animal shelter, shuffles from soldier to soldier, at one point rapidly chasing his three-inch long tail.

“Chester, you looking for attention?” Cavoli says. He gets it after the meeting when soldiers inflate balloons that Chester bounces off his nose and attacks with gusto. He is the brigade’s stress relief.

That morning, the scenario called for soldiers to accidentally run over and kill a goat herder’s wife – all acted out in dramatic Hollywood fashion.

Afterwards, the soldiers met with the family to express their condolences, and then talked with the village elder.

Soldiers schedule a shura, a sort of meeting of decision makers, so the village leaders and Army leaders can resolve the issue.

That follow through, Cavoli said, is the key.

War as diplomacy
“Everything we say and everything we do and how we say it and how we do it is a sentence in our argument – that we are not an occupation force. That is the most fundamental truth about counterinsurgency,” Cavoli told El Paso Inc.

“You have to start with what is the intended rhetorical effect on the people. From there you design your operations,” he explained.

After 23 years in the Army, Cavoli has a somewhat nuanced take on counterinsurgency.

He commanded an infantry battalion on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2006-07, and was an executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the first year of the Iraq war.

That experience, he said, impacts everything he is trying to teach his soldiers.

Counterinsurgency was not an unstudied topic before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he said, but interest in the topic among officers skyrocketed with the start of the war.

“Most serious soldiers during that period embarked upon self-study programs. It started that way. Guys going ‘I’m going to have to figure this out.’ You dig out books and there was some doctrine on it.”

In a traditional war, diplomacy ends when war begins, Cavoli said. The discussion is over. Wiping out the opposing military force is expected to bring about the policy goal.

But with counterinsurgency, he said, the discussion is not beside the point; it is the point. The whole thing is an argument to win the support of the people.

The message?

“We are here for a reason. We are here to help you establish sovereignty, so that you can keep it from being a haven for terrorists. And this is about us enabling you to be a great country so we can go home,” Cavoli said.

That message can be communicated through high-level policy decisions, such as deciding to use the Afghan court system to deal with those detained on the battlefield, he said, or through soldiers’ actions on the ground.

“Do you drive down the middle of the road forcing people out of the way,” Cavoli said, “or do you drive according to traffic laws?”

The day after “executing” the thief, role-player Ghafari has a brief break from his role as the mullah.

His hope, he said through a translator, is that soldiers would learn how to talk to people in Afghanistan and learn how respect is shown in their culture.

“One of the most important things the soldiers can learn here,” he said, “is not to go into a mosque with their boots on and weapons.”