At the Fort Polk military base in the pine forests of central Louisiana, the Army has created a miniature version of Afghanistan — with mock villages and American soldiers working alongside Afghan role-players.
This is the training ground for a new American approach in Afghanistan as the U.S. begins to look ahead to the goal of bringing home the U.S. forces by the end of 2014. The idea is that Afghan forces have to be good enough to defend their country against the Taliban, and to make that happen, the U.S. Army is creating small U.S. training teams at Fort Polk.
In one of these fake villages, which the soldiers call Marghoz, there's a jumble of brick buildings, with a blue-domed mosque in the middle.
American officers and Afghan role-players gather in a village cafe. They're seated around a long table, with Afghan flags hanging on the walls. Tea is served.
This kind of shura, or meeting, is common in Afghanistan. And when Americans attend, they often lead the discussion.
On this day, the idea is for the Afghans to run the meeting. So, the senior American, Lt. Col. Mark Schmitt, listens and takes notes. After more than 30 minutes, he finally speaks to the man playing an Afghan general.
"Saheeb, first I would say, you have a security problem here," Schmitt says. "We just had mortars that killed three policemen, and you have letters of intimidation that are scaring your people."
Schmitt did exactly what instructors want him to do: Listen. Hang back. Let the Afghans lead.
"It's actually been very hard for us to get to that point," says Maj. Scott McLearn, one of the instructors. "The first couple of shuras, the Americans seemed like they ran it, and now they're getting it, where they understand that the Afghans have to be in that leadership role."
A New Approach
The idea for these training teams is only three months old.
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan asked for the teams. They know time is running out to get the Afghans ready. By this fall, 22,000 more U.S. troops will leave, and the Afghans will have to pick up the slack.
So Fort Polk moved fast to set up the training course. The first graduates will head to Afghanistan this spring.
Schmitt will be in charge of one of 50 Army training teams deploying to Afghanistan. He was plucked from an assignment in Oklahoma to take this three-week course.
Like many here, this will be his first deployment to Afghanistan.
He was in Iraq as part of a military training team in 2009-10. "I think it's going to be very similar," he says.
But many officers who have served in both places say Afghanistan is a tougher training assignment.
The mission will be to advise and assist the Afghans on just about everything from combat operations and logistics to police work and medical care.
It's no small task. Afghan soldiers and police aren't well-educated. There are desertion, drug abuse and a host of other problems. "The big problem in Afghanistan, for the Afghanistan government, is corruption," says Wahidullah Naqibullah, one of the Afghan role-players at Fort Polk.
His job is to portray an Afghan police officer. In real life, he was born in Kabul and worked with American forces in Afghanistan as a translator before coming to the U.S.
These American training teams make sense, he says. Afghans must take more responsibility.
"People saw in the past that the coalition forces were doing everything for Afghanistan," he says. "But now they're trying to put the Afghanistan government in front."
Preparing The Teams
A wind kicks up the dust around the mock village that Col. Michael Kasales calls his temporary home. Kasales, the officer in charge of this first batch of teams, served in the Balkans and later in Iraq.
He hasn't been to Afghanistan and says the key for the Americans will be in bonding with their Afghan counterparts. "The Afghan people, regardless of how efficient or inefficient somebody may say they are, they're a very honest and honorable people," he says. "As long as we conduct ourselves accordingly ... it will absolutely be a great relationship."
Asked how he would define success, Kasales says, "Nine months obviously is not going to bring to conclusion something that's been going on for 10 years there. ... For me success is ... if it gets to the point where ... it's better than when we got there when we leave."
However the colonel paints success, he knows his small training teams are in for a tough mission. There are more incidents of Afghans shooting American troops. Yet American teams will be depending more on Afghan forces for their protection, since there will be fewer U.S. combat troops.
"So therefore it is inherently more dangerous," he says. "If there's a gunfight you've got [fewer] guns," he says.
A Sudden Surprise
Back at the cafe in Marghoz, Schmitt's meeting breaks up and he walks out with the role-players.
Suddenly, another role-player approaches this cluster of officers. He pushes past the American guards and pulls a plastic cord from his flowing robes.
He's playing a suicide bomber. And with his mock attack, the village dissolves into chaos. Snipers shoot from the roofs. American and Afghan troops dive for cover and begin returning fire.
Two role-playing Afghan army leaders are declared dead by the referees. The Afghan general, Shaheeb, runs off with his security team. That leaves the senior American, Schmitt, in charge.
"Taliban's taken over a truck in the rear. Let's go get the bad guy truck," he says.
For nearly an hour, Schmitt leads the fighting, then helps treat the wounded and calls in a medevac.
Once again, McLearn, the instructor, stands nearby, grading the colonel's performance.
"He's an A. Definitely. He's solid on his battle drills. He's a guy who's going to get his team back safely from Afghanistan," McLearn says.
But he says the colonel and his soldiers did too much when the attack began.
"They looked around at their Afghan counterparts ... so the Americans' guy pretty much jumped in the leadership role," he says. "In the absence of them doing something, they kind of did take charge."
Schmitt knows that's what the Afghans are supposed to do. He jokes about what he'll say to his role-playing Afghan general who left the battlefield.
"I'm going to say, 'Saheeb, where did you go? Just like that.' And he's going to say, 'I went back in the building,' " the colonel adds.
The colonel shrugs. He says he is not worried whether real Afghan troops will fight and lead.
"Because they're going to kind of have to. Because there's not going to be that many of us," he says.
Whether he's right will be determined soon enough. Sometime in April, Schmitt and his small team will begin a nine-month deployment advising an Afghan army brigade outside Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.