Fort Irwin prepares to shift focus to Afghanistan

FORT IRWIN • A convoy of military vehicles bumps along over the rutted desert road, kicking up dust in its wake, while gunners scan the route for improvised explosive devices.

With the arid landscape and craggy mountains on the horizon, the soldiers on board could be on a mission in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, which is where they will be in just a few months.

But this convoy was carrying soldiers and supplies from one forward operating base to another at Fort Irwin’s National Training Center Saturday. Some 3,500 soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Richardson in Alaska were in their eighth day of training at the NTC, preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in February.

The NTC has replicated both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, but as the United States prepares to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, Fort Irwin will be increasingly responsible for preparing troops to fight in Afghanistan.

“That’s what’s coming out of Washington, D.C., so obviously as a national training center we adapt, and that’s what we’re good at,” Fort Irwin spokesman Etric Smith said.

In the past year, only two out of 10 training rotations at the NTC have focused on Afghanistan, with the rest using an Iraqi scenario, Smith said. In the future, he said, Fort Irwin commanding general Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard plans to request that the Army begin sending more troops to Fort Irwin’s NTC to train for Afghanistan.

Many of the soldiers training at the NTC to fight in Afghanistan are already veterans of the conflict in Iraq. The situation they will face in Afghanistan is both similar yet separate. In both countries, U.S. forces are fighting insurgencies rather than an organized military force. But U.S. commanders and Afghani nationals alike said that training for Afghanistan presents a different set of challenges.

The mountainous terrain in Afghanistan, the fact that — unlike in Iraq — fighting takes place in rural areas rather than in cities, the lack of infrastructure, and the fact that tribes move back and forth freely across the Afghan/Pakistan border while U.S. troops cannot, all present challenges, said deputy brigade commander Lt. Col. Stephen Hughes. So do the Afghani people, who have been fighting one enemy or another for the past 30 years.

Najiv Mommandi plays an Afghan National Army commander working with U.S. forces in the role-playing scenario at Fort Irwin. In reality, he is a native of Afghanistan who flew helicopters against the Soviets during the Cold War before emigrating to the United States almost 21 years ago.
Communication is still the biggest issue between the U.S. troops and Afghani civilians, he said.

“I think more gun barrels are not going to solve the problem, because (the Afghanis) are very proud, and they are also good with guns,” he said. “... I don’t think they want war, because there’s been war for 30 years, but if you push someone into a corner, they’ll fight back.”

Another Afghani national who gave only his role-playing name, Akhar Omari, out of fear of repercussions for aiding the United States, said the training at NTC is fairly realistic if the soldiers take it seriously. But he warned that it will be difficult to prepare the soldiers for the culture they will encounter.

“The language, the culture — people from Afghanistan are different from people here,” he said. “It’s like black and white.”

The lack of jobs, electricity, water and roads in many areas are sources of discontent that lead people to the insurgents, Hughes said. A key part of the U.S. mission is a multi-agency reconstruction effort involving the Department of State, United States Agency for International Development, and the Department of Agriculture, he said. Civil Affairs units from the Army act as a liaison between the U.S. forces, the Afghan civilians, police, and military, and the other U.S. agencies and non-governmental organizations.

But the strategy can’t work without buy-in from even the newest private among the U.S. troops, said Lt. Rob Campbell with the 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Airborne division.

“What a private does at the lowest level has a strategic impact,” he said. “If he doesn’t act respectful to the people, if he doesn’t act professionally, you start to turn the clock back.”

That message has filtered down to many of the soldiers, like Pfc. James Beach, who is preparing for his first deployment. Beach was stationed at a small command outpost outside of the “village” of Lab-e in the NTC, a village with a discontented population and a large insurgent presence.

“The whole point is to make relationships with the civilians that are affected by the war,” he said.

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4123 or asewell@desertdispatch.com

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