PLAYAS, New Mexico — U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan just two years from now, but this week, the military announced it will maintain some presence beyond 2014.
To be ready, some troops are going to a special training center at the abandoned mining town of Playas, New Mexico. It recreates the dangerous conditions in Afghanistan.
"Having the opportunity to immerse here in this kind of an environment is absolutely invaluable for our troops and our leaders," explained Lt. Col. Christopher Norrie, Commander 6-1 Calvary Squadron.
We joined troops from First Brigade Combat Team, First Armor Division based at Fort Bliss, Texas. They’re training under the watchful eye of their commander, Col. Kenneth Adgie.
"So in the storyline, we see a lot more a lot more about the two tribes who are down here in competition for resources, which goes all the way down to goats, chicken to marriages," he said.
The life-and-death scenarios that play out in the New Mexico desert are realistic.
"There’s a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device that you’re dealing with — those type of events, and that continues throughout the day." Capt. John Lynch said.
It’s all captured on camera and reviewed later. Afghanis play the roles of insurgents, police, soldiers and villagers.
"I myself honestly felt I was back home when I walked in and saw the villages and the people dressed as this," said Afghan translator Rokai Ysufazi.
We quickly learned the role players here take their jobs seriously.
I was given a headscarf by a translator, and was admonished when I tried to interview an Afghan woman in public.
Soldiers in training also encounter a tense situation after troops looking for insurgents are accused of conducting an illegal search. Lt. Norrie has to make amends.
"So about an hour ago we bought a goat, which I've never done — a live goat — and we walked hand-in-hand," Norrie told Col. Adgie. "I held hands with my partners, and we all three — myself, the police and the army — walked hand-in-hand with a goat in front of us, very symbolic. All the people here saw us."
It was a critical lesson in cultural sensitivity.
"They've got to get real comfortable real quick about kissing a lot of men and holding hands, sitting real close," Col. Adgie said as he grabbed a soldier's hand. "Me and Kevin, we're just going to hold hands for about 20 minutes and we’re going to talk and at the end we’re going to kiss. And a lot of the rough-and-tumble lieutenants don’t get that, but you have to get past that real quickly because it’s important and soldiers' lives depend on it."
A meeting with village elders and religious leaders known as "Shura" is key to building cooperation in Afghanistan.
"Again, don’t just come here and say this guy is bad without talking with us," explained one of the "villagers" through a translator.
This is a training exercise, but these are real issues.
"We can’t get any projects in until we figure out who the bad people are," said Afghan trainer Mina Ghafoorz. "We try to make it as real as possible for them when they go there. I think it’s beneficial for both sides — for the military and for the Afghan people — so they won’t be misunderstood."
Ghafoorz is dressed in a burka and has played the role of a villager in four training exercises at Playas.
In another scenario, young soldiers on patrol encounter a crowd welcoming a young man home to the village. He’s the religious leader’s son.
Villagers scream, women cry and soldiers look stunned by the shooting. They quickly learn the young man is the mullah's son, and he was shot by his own father.
In the chaotic moments after the shooting, the troop commander has to decide how respond.
"As soon as the shots fired, I started my stopwatch," Col. Adgie said. They had a medic in there about 20 seconds."
As troops secure the crime scene, the company commander decides that Afghan police are responsible for the murder investigation.
"That’s what we really want to get after here, thinking through the problem," Adgie said.
The Playas training gives troops a chance to be tested and learn from possible mistakes before they take on a real mission in Afghanistan.
"And I think that’s the real lesson, and the takeaway from an environment like this — that the soldiers pretty quickly see the cause and effect of their actions," Adgie said.
Those Fort Bliss troops are training for possible deployment this fall.