Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Thousands of Marines at Camp Pendleton are preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in the next few weeks. Not all of their training involves firearms and explosives; some of it is about learning how to build relationships with Afghans.
In a valley hidden among rolling hills on Camp Pendleton, a group of Humvees sits idling by a cluster of wooden buildings, a make-shift village.
Inside one of the shacks, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Lim sits down cross-legged on the floor to talk with the head of the local Afghan National Army.
“So how’s your family?” is the first question.
The two men exchange pleasantries though a translator. They talk for a while about the weather, and the lack of warm uniforms available to the local Afghan forces.
“We’ve got so much problems,” the Afghan colonel tells the Marine Colonel, and he proceeds to list his grievances.
The Marine Corps has hired Afghans for this role play exercise, which is planned to last all day. No one knows exactly how it will play out.
Lim is eventually invited to come outside and review a ragged line of a dozen Afghan soldiers, who have a litany of complaints.
“We don’t have medications, when somebody gets injured,” the translator tells the colonel. “We don’t have ammunition. We don’t get our pay, we haven’t received it.”
Lim listens respectfully and promises to do his best to help them with their mission to fight the Taliban.
“I can see we have a lot of problems we have to work on here,” he says. "I’m going to be here for nine months, I’m going to live with you, and we're going to depend on each other for the security.”
A disturbance suddenly breaks out in a wooden building elsewhere in the village. The shouting and banging brings some of the Marines out of their Humvees and into the road. The Afghan army forces swirl around several robed men they suspect of being insurgents.
Marine Captain Ian Knowles does his best to moderate the chaos.
“I’d recommend that you move those men out there so you have more people watching them," he tells the Afghan army officer. "See these men right there all bunched up close? That’s dangerous. We need to separate them.”
Trainer Glen Lewis says the Marines have to learn how to mentor the Afghan forces, rather than do what comes naturally, which would be to step in and do the job themselves.
“It’s a huge mental shift from what we’ve been trained to do, what we have done for the last few years, especially in Helmand province,” Lewis says. “It’s been a tough fight, and that’s going to be the hardest thing, helping these guys make that transition.”
After the suspected insurgents are finally lined up and handcuffed, Captain Knowles steps out of role for a moment to talk. He’s young and earnest, level-headed and calm.
He admits it’s not easy managing a volatile situation through a translator.
“Part of being a Marine is adapting to whatever local situation you have to overcome, and right now this is it. We’re having to train these guys to take over so that we can get out.”
By this time, Colonel Lim is up at the house of the village chief, the Khan.
The men settle down on the carpet as the Khan welcomes the Marine. Lim launches straight into his first question.
“The economy here, what does the village mainly engage in?” he asks.
The translator relays the question and the Khan replies, “Basically what we cultivate in this area is poppy.”
When Lim suggests he has contact with experts who might suggest alternative crops, the Kahn explains his problem.
“The thing is, when we grow poppy, we get the money in advance,” he says. “And you are only staying here for nine months. We already got the money for this year’s crop. By the time next year comes, you are already gone. So you see we don’t know who to talk to.”
A beautifully crafted tea urn sits on the oriental rug between the men, next to it are finely engraved glasses. But, even though the Marine trainers say the Afghan role players asked them to bring a generator to heat up water, no hot tea is ever served.
Lewis says this is all part of learning what matters to the Afghans. “Generally they are very hospitable people,” he says. “They are very good people, but it’s a different culture, and we need to learn, we need to recognize, 'Oh, I didn’t get tea. I need to think about what’s going on now.'"
That’s exactly the kind of question the training is designed to get Marines to ask themselves. They’ll be in a real Afghan village facing these kinds of questions in a matter of weeks.