The Army is using role-players, replicated war zones and cultural education to prepare U.S. troops who will help the Iraqi and Afghan armies assume security duties in the war-ravaged countries.
Much of this training occurs at Ft. Polk, La. — a place where residents have become so familiar with the Army base’s foreign-language drills that they know more Arabic and Pashtu “than 99.9 percent of the American population,” says Bill David, whose company, Cubic Corp., provides support services there. Such training could be the key to achieving stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, military leaders say.
“We now operate inside a larger context,” says Brig. Gen. Edward C. Cardon. “There’s a cultural context, a language context. You have to understand your environment.”
At Ft. Polk’s Joint Readiness Training Center, soldiers put themselves in that environment.
They’ve created the ultimate war-rehearsal facility: replicas of Iraqi and Afghan villages, complete with former residents of both countries. Soldiers perform mock missions in the 2-acre, roughly 10-building villages, and the role-players respond in the way they believe their counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan would.
“It may not be 100 percent perfect, but it’s of sufficient complexity,” Cardon says. “They’ve done a great job replicating the operational environment that they’re going into.”
Cubic, a California-based defense and transportation company, recruits the center’s thousands of role-players and cultural leaders — Afghans and Iraqis who immigrated to the United States and now help soldiers understand the nuances of their homelands.
“We try to improve the soldiers’ skills on everything from culture up to the execution of the mission,” says Raad Alsamarie, a former member of the Iraqi air force who moved to the United States 14 years ago. He works for one of Cubic’s subcontractors, Mobius Industries, and has helped train U.S. troops since the war in Iraq began. “We teach them how to collect information from the Iraqi people, how to approach them, how to get close to them without offending them.”
Alsamarie believes that if the U.S. military had realized the importance of cultural education earlier, lives could have been saved. He tells a story he heard from a friend who still lives in Iraq: U.S. soldiers there relied on an Egyptian translator to interrogate a shepherd who spoke the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. A misunderstanding caused troops to suspect the man was an insurgent — so they detained him, searched his home, questioned his neighbors. Members of the man’s village saw how he was treated, and they no longer had any desire to help the soldiers capture insurgents, Alsamarie says.
“The U.S. Army created conflicts because of misinterpretations,” he adds.
In past years, Alsamarie was asked to teach soldiers how to interact with Iraqi civilians. Now he’s asked to teach them to communicate with the country’s military commanders, soldiers and police officers.
The 162nd Infantry Brigade, which is based at Ft. Polk, has the unusual mission of training advise-and-assist teams that embed with Afghan or Iraqi security forces. They prepare groups of 12 to 16 soldiers who together will operate within the ranks of one of the countries’ army units. The goal is to bolster local security operations and ensure a smooth transition once U.S. forces leave. The brigade’s 60-day instruction program aims to train about 6,000 advisers per year.
Brigade members write skits, scenarios and challenges for the advisers-in-training. Cubic employees bring those mock situations to life within the replicated villages.
“Think of a movie set,” says David, Cubic’s program manager. “We’re not the directors. We’re not the star actors. What we are is the movie production company. We’ve got a cast of thousands. We’ve got all the props and the wardrobe. We’re doing what the director tells us to do.”
For example, the company has created mock vehicle checkpoints, which include roads and long lines of traffic. In some of the scenarios, pyrotechnic bombs are hidden along roads, and in others, insurgents are mixed in with the general population. Soldiers have to defuse the improvised explosive devices and pick out the bad guys from the innocent civilians.
“The 162nd is teaching the advisers the proper way to conduct a traffic-control point so that they’re armed with that knowledge when they go into the theater,” David says. “And they can advise and assist the Iraqis in accomplishing that task to an appropriate standard.”