Spc. Nathan Taylor’s first try at a Muslim call to prayer sounded pretty solid for an American soldier with Scandinavian roots.
“Allahu Akbar,” sang the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier, repeating the Arabic phrase for “God is great” in a passable imitation of a neighborhood imam in Afghanistan.
His cue drew a couple dozen Stryker infantrymen similarly dressed in traditional Afghan vests and caps at a fake village near Roy. They awkwardly raised their arms to the sky and kneeled on rocky earth to pray, some laughingly uttering the “durka, durka, durka” sounds Taliban characters make in “South Park” cartoons.
Their routine lacked the elegance of an experienced imam’s call, but it had the right effect for a battlefield observation exercise staged for Afghanistan-bound soldiers at Lewis-McChord this month.
They put on the trappings of Afghan life in preparation for the Muslim culture that they will be immersed in this fall when they deploy to Kandahar province with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The Army calls it Advance Situational Awareness Training. Soldiers spent several days learning subtle schemes that insurgents use to fool and harm friendly forces. Trainers took the ploys directly from intelligence reports describing the enemy’s latest tactics.
See a scuffle at a marketplace, for example?
Don’t be distracted; keep your eye on the shady characters dropping bottles near a soccer field. They’re leaving markers in plain sight for bomb makers.
Taylor, who served in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division, called it some of the most valuable training he’s received in the run-up to this deployment.
“We spend all this money on equipment, but we’re not spending money on reinforcing the human mind,” said Taylor, 27, an Iraq veteran heading to Afghanistan for the first time.
In the complicated, multihour scenarios, soldiers observed normal behavior like the prayer Taylor led, and looked for anomalies that might reveal something amiss. Those cues, such as body language and the movements of local leaders, can convey to Afghan civilians when Taliban fighters are moving among them.
“Any time there’s an attack, there are indicators before it takes place,” said Capt. John McAdams of the brigade’s headquarters company. “We almost never pick up on them.”
These soldiers from JBLM are on course to serve one of the last conventional combat tours in the Afghanistan War. It’s a familiar job for the 4th Brigade – it was the last combat brigade to leave Iraq – but in an entirely new setting.
After twice deploying to Iraq in the last five years, this will be the brigade’s first trip to Afghanistan.
Nearly 90 percent of its 4,000 soldiers have never served there, and 44 percent will be going to war for the first time. A little more than 400 soldiers in the brigade have been to Afghanistan on prior assignments.
They’re heading there at a complicated moment. No matter who wins the November presidential election, U.S. forces are on a course to draw down their conventional fighting elements by 2014.
Fewer than 70,000 American service members are in Afghanistan today, down from nearly 100,000 a year ago. It’s not clear yet how many Western troops will be in Afghanistan next summer, when the Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers start to come home.
That means in part that the 4th Brigade will have to be selective in using force; it will be asked to augment the Afghans instead of doing independent raids. Its soldiers will have to learn whom to trust, how to pick out insurgents from unfamiliar towns and what kind of behavior might signal an assault.
Col. Mike Getchell, the 4th Brigade’s commander, brought in the situational awareness training to tone up those skills. It was taught by instructors from the private security firm Orbis and soldiers from the infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga.
One exercise began in a fictional Afghan village. Soldiers dressed as Afghan service members stretched near a police station. Others pretended to be civilians opening a market for the day.
Afghanistan and Iraq veterans mimicked the street vendors they had seen on past assignments.
“This is good quality,” they said, smiling as they cleaned out their pockets and pretended to sell anything they could.
Soon, a group of “hooligans” came by to mess with the marketplace. Using the distraction of a flipping table, a couple other would-be insurgents placed bomb markers – two Coke bottles – near a soccer field.
The scenario peaked during a soccer match at that field. Fake Afghan soldiers stood on the sidelines with AK-47 rifles perched menacingly on their shoulders. The local mullah and strongman cheered on the players.
Midway through the game, a car slowly drove by. The mullah and strong man took their security details and left the scene without drawing attention to themselves.
The car parked about 30 yards from the field and a driver emerged moaning about a flat tire. He threw his hands in the air and popped his trunk, walking away as if looking for a gas station.
That’s when a new group of hooligans walked onto the soccer field to pick a fight. Another man took advantage of the distraction to lay a suspicious bag between the two Coke bottles placed during the first marketplace scuffle.
“Bag! Bomb! Bag!” soccer players shouted, urging the pretend Afghan soldiers to investigate.
The soldiers ran to the bag, but the bomb wasn’t the threat.
It was the sniper hiding in the trunk.
He shot one of the men dressed as an Afghan soldier. Characters pretended to wildly fire their AK-47s, wounding civilians on the soccer field.
Chaos broke out as the characters wailed and ran from the scene. The man who dropped the bag picked up his prop and hopped in the car with the sniper character.
The exercise hit close to home for a veteran at the training.
“I lost a soldier to a sniper in a trunk,” Sgt. 1st Class Elias Munoz, 31, of Tacoma, said while he watched the scenario unfold. He’s a three-time Iraq veteran who wanted the soldiers at this month’s exercises to avoid the “tunnel vision” that comes when the enemy throws up a distraction.
It’s a lesson that can take multiple deployments to learn, he said.
“Don’t focus on the dramatic event when there’s something else out there that can do you even more harm,” he said.
McAdams and other 4th Brigade soldiers couldn’t say whether they’ll be called on to intervene in a similar real-life situation. At this stage in the war, it’s often up to the Afghans to take on much of the fighting.
But Munoz said if a confusing scene unfolds in Afghanistan, observant soldiers can provide descriptions that could help guide friendly forces.
“They can give a very distinct picture,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that can save lives.”