Back in Germany, they train others on Afghan warfare. Here, they’re the students.
January 2, 2008
ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan — When you are battling Taliban insurgents, it helps if you know how they think and how they fight.
For soldiers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment in southern Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, thinking and fighting like an insurgent is second nature.
The unit’s regular mission at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, involves role-playing as insurgents during exercises for other units bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.
On a typical day in Hohenfels, the 1-4 troops can be seen dressed in turbans using AK-47 machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to stage mock attacks on American forces, then blending in with other role players acting as civilians on the battlefield.
“We are used to firing AKs and RPGs, and now we have M-4s. It’s easier to understand [the insurgents’] mind-set after acting as one of them,” said Spc. Dale Belt, 24, of Buna, Texas, an intelligence analyst with Company A in Afghanistan.
Another Company A soldier, Spc. Paul Whitehorn, 29, of Memphis, Tenn., said the 1-4 troops aren’t phased by the enemies’ weaponry in Afghanistan.
“We are used to being hit and hearing RPGs and AK47s. It (combat) is a muscle reflex for us. We see it every day (at Hohenfels),” he said.
First Lt. Joshua Sims, who leads Company A’s 1st Platoon at Forward Operating Base Mizan, said his men have a deeper insight into Afghan culture because of their experience as the opposing force in Germany.
“When we train, there are certain rules based on culture that we have to follow. If the (U.S.) troops are doing something that would be culturally insensitive, we are trained to react accordingly. If they mess with the mosque or are disrespectful to an elder we react,” he said.
The Opfor experience means 1-4 soldiers know how insurgents might use Afghan civilians against U.S. forces, Sims said.
At Hohenfels, Sims’ soldiers try to force the U.S. troops to kill a civilian or destroy a mosque, he said.
“Now we are over here, the tables are turned and we are having to try not to cause civilian casualties, destroy mosques or do something culturally insensitive because that is what the insurgents would like us to do — to make a mistake and so something to lose the trust of the locals,” Sims said.
Cultural understanding is one of the most important parts of the mission in Zabul Province, added Sims, who tries to learn as many phrases in the local Pashtun language as possible.
On a purely tactical level, the Opfor experience gives soldiers potentially life-saving insights.
For example, Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Elms, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said playing the opposing force gives soldiers a good idea of where to expect roadside bombs.
“When we were playing insurgents (at Hohenfels) we would place IEDs,” Elms said. “We were looking for good spots to put them — choke points, entering a confined space or area or where we knew the enemy traveled all the time.
“Now I’m here we do recon driving and I think: ‘This looks like a likely area for the enemy to put an IED,’” he said.