Spc. Nathan Taylor’s first try at a Muslim call to prayer sounded pretty solid for an American soldier with Scandinavian roots.
“Allahu Akbar,” he sang, repeating the Arabic phrase for “God is great” in a passable imitation of a neighborhood imam.
His cue drew in a couple dozen 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 of them laughingly uttering the “durka, durka, durka” sounds Taliban characters make in “South Park” cartoons.
Their routine lacked the natural elegance of an experienced imam’s call, but it had the right effect for an exercise in battlefield observation for Afghanistan-bound soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord this month.
They’re putting on the trappings of Afghan life to ready their eyes and minds for the Muslim culture they’re about to experience when they deploy to Kandahar province with Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The Army calls it Advance Situational Awareness Training, and if it goes as planned, soldiers will spend several days getting fooled by subtle schemes insurgents use on the battlefield to distract and harm NATO forces. Trainers take the ploys directly from intelligence reports describing the enemy’s latest tactics.
See a scuffle at a marketplace, for example?
Better to keep your eye on the shady characters dropping bottles of some kind 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 has 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 War veteran heading to Afghanistan for the first time.
In the complicated, multiple-hour scenarios, soldiers observe normal behavior such as the prayer Taylor led, and look 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 are on a course to serve on what is expected to be one of the last conventional combat missions in the Afghanistan War. It’s a familiar job for the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – it was the last combat brigade in Iraq – but an entirely new setting.
This is to be the 4th Brigade’s first deployment in Afghanistan.
Nearly 90 percent of its 4,000 soldiers have never served there, and 44 percent will be deploying for the first time. A little more than 400 soldiers in the brigade have been to Afghanistan on prior assignments.
They’re heading to a war at a complicated moment. No matter who wins the November 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 soldiers leaving for the war this fall start to come home.
That means in part that the 4th Brigade will have to be selective in using force, and it will be asked to augment Afghan government resources instead of conducting 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 a coming assault.
Col. Mike Getchell, the 4th Brigade’s commander, brought in the situational awareness training to tone up those skills before the mission starts. It’s taught by instructors from the security firm Orbis and soldiers from the infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga.
One exercise this month began at the start of a day in a fictional Afghan village. Soldiers dressed as Afghan service members stretched near a police station. Others pretended to be civilians opening a market.
Afghanistan and Iraq war 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 of other “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 lingering menacingly on their shoulders. The local mullah and strongman cheered on the players.
Midway through the game, a car slowly drove by the field. 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 wildly fired 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.
That one 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 War veteran who wants 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’d be called on to intervene in a situation like the one they depicted in their awareness training. At this stage in the war, it’s often up to the Afghans to take on much of the fighting.
But Munoz said the descriptions observant soldiers could provide could help guide friendly forces if they’re called on to make sense of a confusing scene.
“They can give a very distinct picture,” he said. “Possible sniper. Oh, you’re telling me possible sniper. I’m not just going to roll into town.
“These are the kinds of things that can save lives.”adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8646