FORT IRWIN, Calif. — After a bumpy 30-minute ride, the monstrous Stryker armored fighting vehicle pulled into “Sorkh Kotal Mezrea,” a mock village where the Gimlets of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment out of Fort Wainwright are preparing for war.
“Welcome to Afghanistan,” 1st Lt. Matt Schwegel said, greeting the media spilling out of the Stryker on the outskirts of the village that soldiers refer to as “SKM.”
Outside the village walls, soldiers bustled with assigned tasks: guarding prisoners, digging trenches, laying razor wire and operating checkpoints on the surrounding sand roads. While some might be hoping for calm during the final weeks of preparation at Fort Irwin’s National Training Center, they and the rest of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team appeared to be preparing for a storm.
Sorkh is one of the smaller villages at the NTC. A main road divides the village into two equal sides. Open-air buildings line the road, hosting a school, dentist’s office, gas station, bike repair shop and two mosques — on opposite sides of the village — among other basic necessities.
The buildings are styled unlike American structures. But the staging involves compromise. Instead of brick and wood, Fort Irwin’s Afghanistan is built of shipping containers that have been hollowed out, cut into and painted. Examined closely on the inside, the old steel shines through.
The buildings are stacked on one another, rectangular boxes with a door and a few windows. Neutral colors dominate: sand, brown and beige. A few buildings feature elaborate murals of services offered within.
Actors in Afghan garb walked up and down the street. One group of three men circled along the main road for hours, just talking with one another. From a distance, the men fit the popular image of Afghanistan. Up close, you could hear them speaking English and glimpse blue jeans under their robes.
Along with these obvious actors recruited from the ranks, the Army employs American citizens of Afghan descent as role players. The goal is to fill villages such as Sorkh with a mix of officials, tribal leaders and residents comparable to what soldiers will encounter in Afghanistan.
The NTC Afghans speak Pashtu, work at their shops, and get offended when American soliders break cultural norms, all for the goal of training American troops for what they will deal with during their time overseas.
On this day, the soldiers were providing security for a meeting between rival tribes.
A dispute had apparently broken out between tribes over the ownership of a water source. The meeting involved elders from both tribes. The U.S military, in the form of the 3-21 Gimlets, was mediating the event.
“This is what the war is now,” Schwegel said. “We are just trying to keep people happy.”
Reporters weren’t allowed into the meeting, which was heavily guarded. Three Afghan soldiers guarded the entrance and five Americans stood nearby. Two more Americans blocked a side entrance 30 feet to the left of the building.
Only a few minutes after the meeting started, loud applause was heard from inside. More American and Afghan soldiers came out. Apparently one of the SKM elders had produced paperwork that stated the water belonged to his faction, but the other faction still had its doubts.
‘We are working hard to find a level of peace,” Capt. Mark Olson said. “We are celebrating this.”
Peace is hard to come by, even in a training area. The quasi-agreement of the ownership of a water source would be no small thing — it shows that Afghan people are learning to govern their matters internally.
‘We are more focused on trying to get (Afghanistan’s government) to be self-governing,” Maj. Douglas Walter said. “We want to keep things along their political boundaries.”
Matt Anderson is a student in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Journalism Department. He and other students from UAF embedded with the 1/25th Stryker Brigade at the National Training Center in California.