FORT POLK, Louisiana (Reuters) - When U.S. soldiers rolled into an Afghan security force base in their Humvee vehicles at dawn one cold morning, they came not to lead but to listen.
As a cigarette-smoking Afghan army officer explained how he planned to arrest an insurgent, using a rough layout of a nearby village sketched in the sand, the U.S. troops’ commander asked questions instead of barking instructions.
“We’re going to talk to the elder first, right?” the U.S. Army captain asked. “You’ll be in the lead?”
The setting was rural Louisiana but the exercise gave the U.S. troops a taste of a mission they will face later this year as part of President Barack Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan -- advising Afghan forces instead of leading the fight.
To prepare them, the Fort Polk base is set up as a mini-Afghanistan, complete with the crackle of blank gunfire, booming fireworks to simulate bomb attacks, Afghan role-players and mock villages being created by Hollywood set dressers.
A four-hour drive through swamps and woodland from New Orleans, Fort Polk is home to one of the U.S. Army’s three major training centers, providing three-week, immersion-type courses for troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That 21 days is the most rigorous, relevant and realistic training that they’ll get before they deploy,” said Brigadier General James Yarbrough, commander of the facility, officially called the Joint Readiness Training Center.
“We want the unit’s worst day to occur here, not in combat.”
The center’s staff go to considerable lengths to make the training as realistic as possible. They have goats to roam around the mock villages and troops who are allowed to grow beards and long hair to play the role of insurgents.
They also pride themselves on constantly updating their scenarios. Right now, for both Afghanistan and Iraq, that means focusing more on teaching troops how to act as mentors to local security forces.
U.S. troops are due to cease combat missions in Iraq by August next year and the Obama administration has placed more emphasis on expanding and training Afghan forces.
“We’re going to get good at combat advisorship,” said Yarbrough. “We’re not pulling the trigger quite as much.”
That statement rings particularly true for the paratroopers training at the center from the 4th Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
As part of his plan to reverse U.S. fortunes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama said last month he would send 4,000 troops to train Afghan forces -- and the brigade’s planned deployment to Iraq was canceled to provide the bulk of those soldiers.
The Fort Polk center doubled the number of role-players acting as Afghan troops and police to prepare the U.S. soldiers for their new mission.
Colonel Brian Drinkwine, the brigade’s commander, said his troops would have to resist the urge to take control of operations and let Afghan forces take the lead.
“It’ll be their plans. We may help advise to do it a little safer, a little more efficient, and we’ll go on their tempo, on their timing,” Drinkwine said.
Despite the focus on advising Afghan forces, the training also includes plenty of combat practice.
As the U.S. soldiers and their Afghan partners who mounted the arrest operation drove away from the village, an explosion shattered the calm of the forest and smoke rose into the air, signaling the convoy had been hit by a roadside bomb.
The sounds of gunshots and rocket-propelled grenades rattled through the trees as a battle with insurgents ensued, using a laser system that determines whether the participants have been hit by the blanks fired.
But the training also reflects the U.S. military’s increasing embrace of the idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan must be won by winning the support of the local population rather than primarily by killing enemy fighters.
That lesson has been learned the hard way as U.S. officers acknowledge they knew little about the societies they were dealing with in the early years of the wars.
Even the most junior soldiers at Fort Polk go through an exercise in which they try to build relationships with Afghan villagers by visiting their shops, cafes and public buildings.
To make the scenario as realistic as possible, some of the Afghans complain about U.S. forces, the lack of security and the dearth of funds to help with development projects.
“What kind of commander are you? You don’t have $20,000 in your pocket right now!” an Afghan man in a white robe with a flair for drama laments loudly to one soldier.
After each encounter, the troops get feedback from trainers and role-players, many of them Afghans living in America.
Naqibullah Mayar, a former Afghan army officer seeking asylum in the United States, went as far as to tell some soldiers that a scenario of black market activity in a village may reflect reality in Iraq but is unlikely in Afghanistan.
The tribal and family ties in such a small community would prevent anyone undercutting the local shopkeeper, he said.
But he still sees the training as valuable in teaching U.S. troops to understand and respect Afghan society.
“I wish we could have done that two or three years ago,” he said. “But it’s not too late yet.”
Editing by Eric Beech