Captain Steve Gerber, the ranking American soldier on the scene, scans the perimeter of the Afghan village for signs of activity. There's a roar in the distance and a Humvee is hurtling down the rough dirt road, kicking up mud in its wake from the recent rain.
The Humvee makes a hard right at speed, heads to the far corner of the village, spins around, and stops. The Hummer's gunner pops up like a jack-in-the-box and points the mounted machine gun at a small gully of rocks and trees at the bottom of the slope that marks the edge of town. Seemingly out of nowhere, three Afghan soldiers materialize, working in tandem with the Humvee, running out ahead of the vehicle. One pulls up short, takes a knee and shoulders his rifle, covering the gully at a 45-degree angle opposite the Humvee's position. The other two A and As--U.S. Army slang for Afghan army soldiers--hit the deck directly in front of the Humvee and quickly bring their rifles up to the prone position.
Before long, there's signaling and shouting amidst intermittent gunfire, with the Humvee's mounted .50 caliber machine gun sending a hail of bullets right over the heads of the two Afghan soldiers. The shooting stops right about the same time as a bus barrels up the dirt road. The soldiers hold their positions and about a dozen Afghan National Policemen pour out of the bus, fanning out across the village. They search both homes and any people in the street.
After some shouting and a small ruckus, the policemen focus on a small room in the second story of a building just behind the corner of the great domed mosque in the center of town. Two handcuffed men--one wearing fatigues, the other in a long white robe he's nearly tripping over--are pushed and dragged through the village towards the bus. The policemen have also captured one rocket-propelled grenade and an IED, consisting of a metal box with miscellaneous electronics and a nine-volt battery.
Gerber saunters over to where the two Afghan Army officers in charge are standing.
There are warm greetings all around. In a few seconds, Gerber goes from all-business army officer to aw-shucks Midwesterner. The joint Afghan-American mission is a success. In fact, it was such a success you could almost believe you're not in Kansas anymore.
The Afghan village is a fake. It's nothing more than a handful of carefully stacked and modified shipping containers set up in the prairie on the outskirts of Fort Riley. The base is ringed with mock villages and tactical training areas. They're given Arabic or Afghan names, but are generally referred to by their army designation. This village is known as "Cluster City Five."
The terrorists and village dwellers in the exercise are role players supplied by a defense contractor. Most are young males recruited from nearby Kansas State--all too happy to play army for $14 an hour. During their downtime, they sit around in the rusted shipping containers playing cards, joking, and generally enjoying themselves.
Gerber seemed like a pretty average guy--brown hair, normal sized, happy to chit-chat about his beloved Cleveland Browns picking up Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn in the NFL draft. He nearly flunked out of high school and joined up only as a last resort. Now thanks to a few years of army discipline, he's a West Point grad and a walking recruitment poster. He was here "O.C.-ing the drill"--army parlance for acting as observer controller. His job was to make sure that the exercise happened as it was supposed to happen and intervene if it wasn't. "The basic idea here is that this team is going to try to set up an outer cordon to keep people from getting in. Then you want to set up an inner cordon, which is going to stop people from getting out. And they're going to be coordinating with everybody to make sure everything is kosher," Gerber says.
One thing about the exercise is unmistakably real: the Afghan soldiers. Currently, there are about 90 Afghan soldiers and police participating in training exercises with U.S. soldiers at Fort Riley. Lloyd Robbins--an Army brat from nearby Junction City who played the terrorist in the white robe--confirms that "It's a lot more real being arrested by Afghans." He laughs, claiming they roughed him up.
The Afghans certainly take their jobs as training partners very seriously. The Afghan captain overseeing the A and As participating in the exercise tells me that his family fought both the Soviets and the Taliban. In typical Afghan fashion he looks at least ten years older than he likely is, but his face is so dignified that it might as well have been cut from stone.
"The main thing for us is the fight with terrorists, because it is not only our country, it is all around the world. So our country is important, but other countries are, too, so we have to fight to finish our job," he says. "We have to help each other and share all our ideas together to first fight terrorism, and, second, rebuild our country."
Fort Riley is two hours west of Kansas City, just off Interstate 70 in-between Junction City and Manhattan. It's old: The base was established in 1853, and Custer and his 7th Cavalry were stationed here during the time of Little Big Horn. Back then it was about the farthest west the U.S. Army could go before heading off into the frontier.
A sign at the entrance announces that, true to its heritage, Riley is still a "Forward Operating Base" and admonishes visitors to "be prepared for simulated battlefield activities." For thousands of soldiers, this is the last stop before shipping out to Afghanistan or Iraq: 60 days of counterinsurgency instruction that might amount to the most important training of their careers.
The scale of counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan means the Army is stressing cooperation with local military and police to an unprecedented degree. Just a few years ago, the kind of on-the-ground tactical coordination with foreign militaries and police that the U.S. Army now demands infantry soldiers execute with precision was the domain of Special Forces. Today, it's the new paradigm of warfare.
The U.S. military is a victim of "catastrophic success." Its capabilities so dwarf any potential rival's that insurgency within a civilian population is no longer the enemy's last refuge in warfare but his preferred strategy. (In his lectures, the influential military strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett is fond of pointing out that it's been so long since the U.S. military shot down an enemy aircraft in combat, that the Air Force pilot who last did is now a general.)
That's just the tactical problem. The political problem is just as monumental. In his recent book The Utility of Force, British General Rupert Smith notes:
There is an acceptance in many circles that we now conduct operations rather than wars, but we still expect them to deliver a definitive military victory in its own right that will resolve a political problem, rather than one that contributes to and supports the resolution by other means.
Smith advocates a revolution in thinking about war that would view confrontations as intertwined political and military conflicts. "What will be technologically and tactically appropriate in one case will be inappropriate in another; but what will remain constant is the new approach," he writes.
The Army's answer to these problems is the Military Transition Team (MiTT), and it is the job of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division to train them at Fort Riley. Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Hudson briefs me on the 1st Brigade Task Organization Transition Team Training. He is a tall, imposing figure, and when he quotes T.E. Lawrence with his East Tennessee drawl it's so in sync with preconceived notions about what army colonels should be as to be reassuring. He's hobbling around on an air cast--he fell down the stairs at home, and is mildly embarrassed his story is not exactly Purple Heart material. Fortunately, his military duties at hand are light, consisting of a PowerPoint presentation. But Hudson knows that wars must now be won off the battlefield as well as on and wields his laser pointer with as much accuracy as his M-4.
As Hudson explains, MiTT training is a major part of the Pentagon's new approach to counterinsurgency. A MiTT embeds with an Iraqi or Afghan unit. The team itself is small--10-15 soldiers, usually of more advanced rank, from staff sergeant to colonel--but designed to work with almost any size unit from battalion to division. Their goal is to make the local troops self-sustaining: tactically, operationally, and logistically. Aside from providing training and expertise, MiTTs also provide a huge morale boost to their foreign counterparts as they have the power to call in air support and reinforcements otherwise not at the disposal of the local police and military. The MiTT should encourage the locals to go on the offensive and gain the confidence needed to later fight on their own: a necessary component of our we-stand-down-as-they-stand-up exit strategy. Transition teams also leave a small footprint in hostile areas that might be stirred up by a larger U.S. presence. Such small groups remain in the shadows and emphasize the achievement of Iraqi and Afghan forces--something that greatly reduces the political fallout of U.S. operations.
Just as the transition teams are a departure from traditional tactics, so is the training. There's still plenty of time on the range and field artillery exercises during these last 60 days before heading to a combat zone. It's just that the MiTTs get substantial amounts of counterinsurgency training, not normally available to infantry soldiers. Their schedule is packed six days a week to find the time for language training and cultural immersion relevant to the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq or Afghanistan and still keep up with the necessary physical and combat training.
"We're probably the only armor brigade in the Army that has Special Forces soldiers assigned to it," Hudson notes. Special Forces are much better trained on counterinsurgency fighting than traditional Army, and their presence falls within another unique feature of the brigade--the Directorate of Cultural Immersion and Counter Insurgency (DCC). Out of 825 people in the brigade, 120 are assigned to the DCC. Because the MiTT is to be embedded with local forces, its members need a strong grasp of the language and customs. "We've actually got folks that have lived in those countries that are here to help us understand where we're going and how to operate in that environment," Hudson says.
The brigade fosters visits from Afghan security forces for joint training. The Cluster City Five exercise had MiTTs practicing the coordination of a joint operation with Afghan soldiers. Such exercises bring all of their combat, language, and cultural training together. (Though it has yet to happen, they're currently working on arranging visits from Iraqi forces.) So far at Fort Riley, they've trained and deployed about 3,000 soldiers to participate in transition teams, and Hudson says about 934 are in training at the moment. The U.S. military has thrown its full weight behind the strategy. When it comes to training, "If we ask for something, we generally get it," he says.
Cultural immersion training begins not on the battlefield, but in the rows of Fort Riley's modular classrooms. In one class, a middle-aged Afghan man from Seattle is dutifully laying out the basics of cultural sensitivity in his home country--don't show the soles of your feet, if you give the thumbs up sign it's the same as the finger to an Afghan, don't say hello to women on the street
"We can't tip our Kevlar and say 'Howdy, Ma'am'?," asks one soldier incredulously. Following up, another soldier asks, "Has there been a big problem with this? Because we're a very friendly people--I'm from Tennessee." The class erupts in laughter. Judging by the various twangs and steamrolled vowel combinations among the questioner's chattering classmates, if not for the South, the United States might literally be fielding An Army of One.
In the classroom next door are two Afghan-Americans wearing traditional tribal dress: Kamal, an Uzbek speaker, and a Dari speaker named Torjmon who goes by Tony. Both have worked in Afghanistan as military translators and the students take advantage of their expertise. They discuss the nitty-gritty of getting a working cell phone in Afghanistan, and one soldier even asks about the movements of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord renowned for his heroism against the Soviets but now wanted by the United States for trying to overthrow President Karzai. It would be safe to say that the soldiers' understanding of the situation surpasses that of most congressmen.
Of course not every area of cultural understanding is a launching pad for sophisticated discourse. One soldier asks Tony if there's anything that U.S. soldiers keep doing wrong. Tony doesn't skip a beat. "Yeah, you guys can't keep you're a--holes shut!" he says. It seems that the Army-issue Meals Ready to Eat (affectionately known in the service as "Three-Lies-in-One") combined with constant physical labor is a recipe for gastrointestinal distress.
"You eat your MRE's all the time and you just"--Tony lifts his leg exaggeratedly--"AHHHHHHHHHH. It's very disrespectful." Tony's trying to impart a serious lesson, but the class is doubled over laughing. Of course, he's also a bit bitter. On his last tour working as a translator in Afghanistan, thanks to the actions of one particularly rude colonel in front of some Afghan army officers, "My name changed from Torjmon to Fartmon." More laughter.
After class Tony and Kamal both head for the mess hall. It turns out that Kamal's from Northern Virginia and Tony's from Orange County. ("How could you not love it?," Tony says of Southern California.) They're both very pleased by what they see in the classroom and elsewhere. All the language and customs instructors actually live with the soldiers in the barracks. They answer questions and correct the soldiers' pronunciation 24/7.
"So far we've had some great, great teams at camp and they're awesome. And willing to learn," Tony says.
Kamal agrees. "They are putting in the effort to learn, pick up the language, the customs, the culture. We correct [them] and they fix it the next time. So the effort is there," he says.
In the back of the cafeteria a big screen television announces that al Qaeda leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri has been killed. The information later turned out to be false, but for the time being, there's scattered cheering throughout the mess hall.
Tony appears to be elated. "This is very good news," he says. He turns to the whole table and announces, "Who's up for celebrating?"
Of course, not all of the Army training consists of brushing up on how to say "Where is the bathroom?" in Uzbek and learning some local customs that might otherwise be gleaned from a copy of Let's Go Kandahar. The transition team training emphasizes applied knowledge.
An entire MiTT--a dozen or so men--carefully file into a cramped room in another one of the base's drab mobile homes masquerading as office space. Two Afghan instructors are seated comfortably on a couch against the back wall, facing an expanse of soldiers in fatigues. In between them is a footlocker that serves as a coffee table, on which are placed some stained doilies and a modest tea set. The team knows next to nothing about the situation going in.
In a "Leader Meeting" like this one, the instructors they are about to encounter could be warlords, Afghan army officers, village officials, or gracious hosts simply serving them a meal and helping them practice their Dari. What they will not be doing is speaking English.
Pure discomfort hangs in the air from the moment the team walks in, and for good reason. The doilies on the footlocker are stained because leader meetings sometimes do not go well, physical threats are made, and tea gets upended by pounding on the makeshift table.
The three MiTT leaders arrange themselves on folding chairs up front. The two instructors, Mohammed and Omaid, are lanky and disarmingly handsome, but their combined physical presence is all coiled tension. The first thing they do is offer the soldiers tea. The Americans make basic introductions with their limited Dari and then through the team's translator Ibrahim, one of the team leaders--again a Southerner--clumsily makes a joke about not being able to find any iced tea in Afghanistan.
Mohammed and Omaid counter by wondering why the Americans don't like their tea, and thus begins the American backpedaling. It's hard to imagine any Hollywood casting director not being floored by Mohammed and Omaid's performance. The two play off each other like they have a psychic link, knowing perfectly how to act offended and when to hang back and let the Americans swim in a sea of their uncomfortable pauses and fierce stares.
The American team leaders proceed more cautiously, and Mohammed and Omaid reluctantly lay out one thread of information at a time. They want the Americans to help their troops go into a nearby village at dawn and burn the poppy fields of suspected Taliban.
You can see the American team leaders gaining confidence. They stay focused and patient and take notes on everything the Afghan commanders say as they sort out the logistics of the mission--how many Americans the Afghans want to participate, whether they need a Humvee, and dozens of other logistical details excruciatingly extracted through their translator. Ibrahim plays his role to the hilt here as well; like many local translators the soldiers may be forced to rely upon, he provides impish replies that don't exactly project trustworthiness.
The biggest hitch only slowly emerges: There's a chance the poppy fields aren't Taliban. The intelligence suggests that the owner simply has a beef with the village leader. It's a tough call, but the Americans reluctantly agree to back the Afghans on their mission. After the final decision is made, the meeting breaks with a wave of relief followed by much handshaking and backslapping. The celebration is a tad premature.
Staff Sergeant Darmi Haughton is tasked with evaluating the proceedings and has been industriously scribbling notes on her clipboard the entire time. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun under her cap, she looks a bit incongruous wearing her battle dress in such an obviously administrative setting. She's bookish for a soldier, and her owlish demeanor during the exercise resulted in a detailed evaluation. Overall the team did very well extracting information, she says, but the transition team leaders didn't ask whether the Afghans had cleared the mission with their higher command, nor did the team leaders explain to the Afghan Army leaders that they would have to clear the mission with their own command.
The other big criticism speaks to the proposed timing of the mission and the team's cultural understanding of Afghanistan. "It's 5:30 in the morning. Right after prayer time. So everybody's out there: women, children, whatever. So if something does go wrong, who's going to be there? The Americans are going to be there, and if the Americans do something wrong, it's televised--it's big," Haughton says.
The criticism is sobering. All members of the team, not just the leaders, begin discussing what they did wrong, and the conversation is quite productive. After everybody leaves the room, Omaid and Mohammed begin to relax, and turn from Afghan soldiers back into Afghan-Americans. They tell me they've been doing four or five leader meetings a day for eight months. No wonder they're so good.
Major Erich Campbell looks a little tired around the eyes. He's got a blond crew cut and a bearing that exudes the inevitable hardness that comes from intense training and recent combat. Only after talking to him a while does it become apparent that he's about as relaxed as he's been in quite a while. He only recently got back from a MiTT assignment in Iraq. He generates a lot of interest from the soldiers bound for Afghanistan and visitors alike, but he is guarded; the mission in Iraq wasn't necessarily a success. "I was with the 8th Brigade Iraqi National Police. We were actually the brigade that was disbanded and pulled off the streets and reformed," Campbell says. "They were pulled off the streets because they were doing what we'd call extra-judicial killings. We suspected it and we were finally able to prove it. Because of that, the brigade was pulled off and reformed, and some of the senior leadership was relieved of command."
The incident made national news back in the United States. Campbell freely admits that the situation in Iraq is far more complicated than Afghanistan, and the transition team work is much tougher. "We were actually applied as a Band-Aid to our situation with the Iraqi National Police," he says. "The Iraqi National Police was kind of formed without any U.S. input. There's a lot of interservice rivalry between the Iraqi police, the Iraqi National Police, and the Iraqi army. They all have their own agendas."
Along with the interservice corruption and rivalries, the resistance on the ground in Iraq runs deeper and stronger than in Afghanistan. Internecine strife among the Iraqi people is also a challenge. Campbell had spent seven months in Afghanistan, but when he got to Iraq he quickly realized that Afghan tribal disputes don't compare to the Sunni-Shia conflict.
And while Campbell says that things are improving, the American command does plenty to add to the mess. "We were undermanned too because of reporting requirements and admin requirements--just horrendous," he says. "Everybody wants to know what's going on, how they're doing, what's their status. I think, for just a 9-man element [plus 30 to 40 support staff], we produced over 600 reports a month." In Iraq, it seems even the paperwork is deadly.
But in spite of all this, there is real progress to point to. The success of MiTTs largely corresponds with the time the forces have been integrated. Iraqi National Police transition teams are just getting set up. The transition teams with the Iraqi army were implemented two years before those with the Iraqi police, and the Afghan transition team program began two years before that with the Iraqi army. As a result, teams in Afghanistan are integrated all the way down to the company level, whereas the more centralized Iraqi forces are only integrated at the larger battalion level.
"I'm pleased to say that while I was there the Iraqi army had really come around. So I might sound like I'm talking bad about the [INP], but really it's just a very new organization," Campbell says.
And in the end, Campbell observes, the fact that his transition team was able to identify and stop the Iraqi corruption is a sign of progress, not failure. "We were only the second generation there. The fact that we had the senior corrupt leadership removed was a tremendous step," he says. "Prior to us even arriving, [the INP] had never received any training, they were basically pulled in off the street and given AK-47s. So by the time we left they were being given standard weapons, standard uniforms, and standard training--and that takes a year. We measure our success in millimeters. It's more than just training--it's changing a whole mindset."
Innovative programs like the transition teams demonstrate the Army's commitment to fundamentally rethinking its mission. Few people are suggesting that the recent success in Iraq, five years after the war began, is because of these programs begun in Afghanistan and maturing in Iraq. But as such tactical innovations gain momentum, they could very well lead to much more success.
In the meantime, while politicians and pundits continue to be surprised by recent progress in the war, perhaps they should visit Fort Riley and speak to Major Campbell. "We will see a lot of improvement," he says. "The training here has really gotten phenomenal."