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US exit from Afghanistan relies on new adviser teams; Hollywood-like training prepares them
FORT POLK, La. (AP) ' Deep in the piney woods of western Louisiana, a mob of Afghans gathers at the gate of what looks like a typical government building in southern Afghanistan.
The village is a Hollywood-like mockup called Dara Lam and the Afghans are role players, egged on by U.S. military trainers. Minute by minute, they clamor more, testing the reactions of the U.S. soldiers watching from within the building.
Col. Mike Kasales is inside, out of sight, trying to quietly offer guidance to the soldiers portraying Afghan military leaders. "I think it's best if we all try to figure this out," he cautions, urging the two sides to reach their own resolution.
For Kasales, this is part of a three-week training course at Fort Polk. Home just a year from Iraq, he had planned to take his brigade to Afghanistan in 2014. But eight weeks ago, he got the call with new orders: Build small teams of officers and get them into Afghanistan as advisers by early spring.
Much of the campaign to bring American troops home will rest on the shoulders of these new, specialized advisory teams. Their creation is designed to help meet the Obama administration's new goal to shift from a lead combat role in Afghanistan to a support role as early as mid-2013.
But the program's success may be hampered by the deep divisions between the U.S. and the Afghan government and its citizens, a rift made more severe by a series of recent events, including the inadvertent burning of Muslim holy books by U.S. troops, the deaths of seven U.S. troops at the hands of Afghan soldiers and the March 11 massacre of nine children among 16 civilians, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.
The incidents have led to more strident calls for a more rapid exit from Afghanistan. Complicating the future further was Afghan President Hamid Karzai's statement last Thursday that he wanted U.S. troops out of rural areas and villages, pushing them to stay on large urban U.S. bases until the final troop drawdown in 2014.
And so the teams' job is to get their Afghan counterparts ready to handle their own security.
"It's a way to thin the lines and put less of us over there and have more of them do what they have to do," said Gen. David Rodriguez, who, as head of U.S. Army Forces Command, is responsible for sending trained and equipped solders to commanders in Afghanistan.
The problems in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama said last week, only underscore the need to make the transition to an advisory force.
"If we are going to cut back so quickly and rely so much on advisers, we make the people who stay extraordinarily attractive targets," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies
A minor incident can easily erupt into a bigger security threat, and analysts said the teams may have to rely on counterintelligence skills to ferret out people who might put them at risk.
"Our forces that are involved in being embedded advisers with Afghans are going to have to be much more vigilant than may have been the case in the past," said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2003-04.
Fort Polk leaders said the soldiers are trained to watch for suspicious behavior among their Afghan counterparts so they can spot potential Afghan traitors.
Another concern is the often spotty progress of the Afghan troops.
U.S. military leaders acknowledged that most of the Afghan forces will not be able to operate independently when the teams leave at the end of the year.
"It's not going to happen this rotation; it's going to take a while," said Brig. Gen. K.K. Chinn, commander of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center, which spans about 100,000 acres of the base. "But just like we saw in Iraq, we will be able to get where we need to be, to be able to depart."
In a whirling blast of sand, Rodriguez's helicopter had just set down at the edge of Dara Lam to review this new training program.
Walking through the narrow dusty "streets" of Dara Lam, Rodriguez watched as the teams prepared for a training exercise. In an interview with The Associated Press just outside a mock police headquarters, he mapped out the plans for the coming months.
The first 47 teams, he said, will head to southern Afghanistan in April, and 46 more will deploy to eastern Afghanistan a month later, for a combined total of about 600 advisers. Kasale's teams, members of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, will be among the first to deploy.
After years of sending trainers and advisers to Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military leaders believe they are now getting it about right.
Each team is made up of officers, usually pulled from the same unit, so they are expected to work seamlessly together. And they are spending much more time meeting via video conference with military leaders who are currently in the Afghanistan region where they expect to deploy.
Commanders also said they corrected weaknesses in the training, including the need to provide more detailed law enforcement training to the soldiers who will be advising the Afghan police. Officials said they brought in military police to help bolster that training.
But perhaps the most difficult part is the increased emphasis on ensuring that the Afghan forces lead the way, forcing the U.S. officers to resist their natural impulse to do things themselves.
"It requires a different mindset to advise," Chin said. "Because all our leaders, everyone, to get where they got today, they didn't get there by advising. They got there by being up front, in the lead."
Col. Matthew McKenna, commander of the 162nd Infantry Brigade, is in charge of the trainers, who routinely school Army combat troops, the adviser teams and others at Fort Polk and at bases across the U.S. and abroad.
"The natural American tendency is to do it yourself. And so we see that and we coach them and say, Well, it's really about getting the (Afghans) to do it," said McKenna. "The more you do, the less they'll do."
Many of the role players scattered around the makeshift town are Afghans, including some who have served in the security forces there. They've been brought in to inject as much realism as possible into the scenarios that play out.
At one point, Farzan Zadran is working in the market, haggling with an Afghan woman eyeing his fruits and vegetables. Later in the day, he's a village elder taking part in another training exercise. The more than 100 role players usually wear special laser-sensitive vests that can be triggered in scenarios where they may be shot or injured.
"Zadran" ' his role-playing name ' is a former Afghan teacher who came to America in 1979 and has been an actor at Fort Polk for the past seven years.
"I came here to help train soldiers and teach the culture of our country," said Zadran, who did not want to give his real name. Knowing the culture, the language and the religion, he said, makes it easier for the soldiers to deal with the Afghan people.
"Train them the right way," he said, "and innocent people will not be killed."
Associated Press video journalist Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.