About 4,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division are heading to Afghanistan later this spring.
The unit known as "Strike," the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, will be part of one of the war's most challenging operations: taking the southern city of Kandahar, home of the Taliban.
Before they depart, they are completing a training mission in the pine forests of Louisiana. In Afghanistan, the soldiers will be expected to fight as a team alongside Afghan soldiers, and seek the cooperation of the local population.
Role-Playing In Fake Firebase
On a recent morning, a line of Humvees rolls through the main street of a "village," lined with shops and hanging laundry. The vehicles, manned by soldiers, pull into a combat outpost, passing through a checkpoint of Afghan soldiers and then into a compound of high concrete walls, ringed by barbed wire and topped with guard towers.
It looks real, but it's all make-believe. The walls are made of Styrofoam, a backdrop at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.
The Afghan guards look the part, with their tattered hats and old camouflage uniforms, complete with Afghan flag patch.
But then one drawls in a distinct Louisiana accent, "We just play this role and try and help out the American forces."
Paul Hines, a lanky 20-year-old Army private from Louisiana, is playing the part of an inexperienced Afghan soldier at this fake firebase. Other role-players are real Afghans portraying politicians.
Afghans 'Getting There'
"We're not as high-speed, like the American forces," Hines explains, standing next to a gate with another American — Aaron Shay of Columbia Falls, Mont., dressed as an Afghan.
"We try to act like, 'Hey, what's going on? We don't know. You all need to train us,' " Hines says.
U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan say some Afghan troops fight, but many just don't. They wait around to get orders from their American counterparts.
Pfc. Christopher Mosely, who is also playing an Afghan soldier, says the Afghans are "just not qualified just yet," though he adds they are "getting there."
So how do the American soldiers play Afghan soldiers?
"You do it, but not to the best of your ability. I wouldn't say halfway, 75 percent, you know," Mosely says.
The 101st has been training here for three weeks, sweeping through villages and forests searching for Taliban fighters and working with local leaders. Already, friction is growing between the Americans and those playing the Afghan troops.
The Americans refused to let the Afghans go on a mission. As a result, one of the Afghan role-players, Staff Sgt. Travis Longmore of Plymouth, Mass., confronts Capt. Mike Miller, commander of Delta Company.
"Right now, the commander and I are on the verge of not doing any missions at all," Longmore says, "because if we feel that we're not being included, it's disrespectful."
Not participating in any missions is a big threat. In Afghanistan, U.S. troops can enter a house only with Afghans. Miller, the American commander, has to act fast.
"I apologize for my soldiers. They are out of their lane. You are a well-trained, well-disciplined force," Miller tells the role-playing Longmore. "I hope our relationship continues to improve."
Miller's apology smoothes things. He'll need to use this sort of flattery when dealing with real Afghan soldiers.
Emphasis On Protecting Population
With this disagreement settled, the captain unfolds a map as the Afghan role-players look on. An interpreter lends an air of authenticity.
As they wait for the mission to start, soldiers stand around their Humvees. Most of them, like Pfc. William Hunt, have never served in Afghanistan, only in Iraq.
"It's going to be a totally different fight; it's not going to be anything like Iraq," says Hunt.
That's because the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wants the soldiers to protect the population, not hunt for insurgents.
"You know, we're going to pretty much influence and manipulate the people of the villages to get them to see it our way," Hunt says. "It's going to be different. I think it's going to be a lot less blowing [things] up and more working with the people."
That's a big part of this training exercise: how to take a village without killing civilians.
Commanders are tightening rules for when a soldier can shoot, known as the rules of engagement, or ROE.
Part of that change includes searching buildings to make sure there are no women or children. Another change is that soldiers can no longer fire warning shots at cars. But there's a price.
"As the ROE gets more restrictive compared to what it has been in the past, we assume more risk on our soldiers," says Miller, the Delta Company commander.
Crash Course In Diplomacy
Continuing the training exercise, the Americans and their Afghan partners drive out of the outpost. Almost immediately, they encounter a problem — another sign of how difficult it will be if winning the war means winning over the population.
An Afghan role-player flags down Miller. Troops have ordered an Afghan official's car to the side of the road.
"You cannot stop him anytime," says the Afghan role-player, as Miller listens. "He is in charge of this province."
Miller becomes frustrated, as his line of Humvees idles and his mission waits.
"That's what we're trying to do," Miller says. "We're trying to move him off to the side of the road so we can pass him as well."
Miller hops back in his Humvee and shakes his head.
"What was that all about?" asks his driver.
"He's like, 'You can't stop me.' I'm like, 'I'm not, I'm trying to pass you,' " Miller says, frustration rising in his voice.
It's just one more headache for an Army captain who is learning to play diplomat. Sometime in June, he'll be in Kandahar, putting both roles to the test.