Stage Managing War

by Amira Valliani:

“The soldiers brought their own mullah and introduced him to me,” recalled Nazim Hakimi, a native Afghan and himself a mullah, a term for a Muslim man learned in religious matters. Hakimi explained that it is common for U.S. soldiers traveling in Afghanistan to establish a connection with mullahs in order to help win over the population. “They said that they are here to help,” Hakimi continued. “I had to tell them the needs of the village — clean drinking water, roads… and then, right in the middle of our conversation, a person came in and committed a suicide attack on the U.S. soldiers.”

Hakimi is Afghan, but besides that, the rest of his story is not true. He is not an actual mullah, but a role-player in U.S. military training scenarios. The attack he described was scripted by employees of the United States government to help American soldiers prepare for situations they might encounter when deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Constantly switching his identity from mullah to district chief to shopkeeper, Hakimi is one of hundreds of Iraqi- and Afghan-Americans who have been hired by the U.S. government to assist as actors in training programs designed to simulate battle conditions.

Soldiers practice restraining an Iraqi crowd as a U.S. colonel meets with the mayor of "Medina Jabal," one of the faux Iraqi villages built near Fort Irwin. (Courtesy David Axe/Flickr Creative Commons)

Immersing troops in mock-battle situations is not a new practice. Fort Irwin, a training center about 150 miles outside Los Angeles, hosted Cold War-style tank battles during the 1980s. The first urban terrain simulation took place there in 1993.

In 2004, as the situation worsened in Iraq, the military set its sights on training soldiers in the tactics of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes the need to protect civilians and gain their trust. The central insight of counterinsurgency doctrine is that if locals fear and hate the U.S. army, fighters in groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda can easily slip back into local communities after launching attacks on U.S. soldiers. The war in Afghanistan is a “year-long struggle, often conducted with little apparent violence, to win the support of the people,” wrote General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, in his August 2009 report to defense Secretary Gates.

To train soldiers to effectively interact with people of utterly different cultural backgrounds, as well as to operate in a hot, arid, environment, the Army has recreated Iraq in California. Officers at Fort Irwin built 13 Iraqi villages in a month by buying hundreds of pre-fabricated sheds and placing them around the Mojave desert. They went on to recruit 250 Arabic-speaking actors to play the role of villagers. Soldiers who had acted as members of the Soviet army in earlier simulations took on the roles of insurgents.

These villages have since evolved into something much more complex. Today, training villages are located at military bases all over the United States, with the two biggest at Fort Polk in Louisiana and Fort Irwin in southern California. At these two centers, tens of thousands of acres of forest and desert have been transformed into complexes of Iraqi and Afghani villages, complete with mosques, houses, and street signs designed to transform these patches of America into Basra and Kandahar.

Making these areas feel like warzones is perhaps even more important than making them look like warzones. Crucial to this effort are 200 trainers, known at Lizards, who craft scenarios that will give each incoming set of trainees a sense of the experiences they may confront. In some cases, they spend as much as a year on the process. Pyrotechnics, role-players, Hollywood makeup artists, and consultants collaborate to make the villages realistic. No detail is too small. Two fake news networks that mirror CNN and ABC, for example, operate out of the villages, conducting mock interviews with soldiers and residents and reporting ghostwritten news. Each villager belongs to a specific medina, or town, which are simulated as thoroughly as possible; each one, for example, has its own soccer team and plays matches against neighboring towns.

Every soldier deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan has to go through the village training program first, which means that upwards of 50,000 soldiers train there throughout the year. Because most soldiers are deployed within a few months of their village experience, the training must be as realistic as possible. Soldiers drill standard combat maneuvers but also practice forging positive relationships with village leaders who speak little English, calming down rowdy crowds, and avoiding public-relations disasters. They learn to work with translators and to adjust to local cultural expectations and etiquette. Scenario-builders pay close attention to detail when crafting training sessions. They sometimes include Taliban propagandists who pose as “legitimate” journalists, and use extensive makeup artistry to make some actors appear to have lost limbs. One actor roams the desert at Fort Irwin as an al-Qaeda operative who is trying to hire snipers. The center aims not only to train battalions before deployment but also to expose the specific vulnerabilities of each battalion before they ship off to war.

Despite the work that goes into creating realistic training conditions, a gap still exists between the simulated battlefields in America and the actual conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hakimi pointed out that many people in charge of planning the trainings have never been to the countries that troops are about to deploy to, so they have only second-hand information about the conditions and issues that soldiers will be facing: “Some of them have never been to Afghanistan and don’t know anything about the culture or about how it works.”

Another Afghan native, who has been a roleplayer at Fort Polk for about five years and wished to remain anonymous, agrees. He argued that Lizards do not know Afghan culture well enough to build it into the script accurately. For instance, he stated that while village scenarios dictate women working as shopkeepers and attending funerals, women would never actually take on these roles in Afghan society. He is concerned by these cultural inconsistencies because these weaknesses in the training process could lead to casualties in two countries for which he feels strong allegiance: “I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m trying my best to do as much as I can. Each side that gets killed or gets hurt is going to hurt me.”

Military officials, however, insist that they are doing everything possible to make the trainings realistic in every way. Lizards are in touch with troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan on a daily basis and constantly update trainings with new scenarios that have occurred on the battlefield. John Wagstaffe, director of the Public Affairs Office at Fort Irwin, explained how nuanced the trainings are: “We insert things into the scenario that occurred yesterday in Iraq. We practice on 13 different IEds out there. We even use Iraqi phones. When guys come back, they tell us, ‘Wow, it’s just like that over there.’”

The stakes involved in designing these training exercises are extraordinarily high — as Wagstaffe put it, “next time, someone will be shooting real bullets.” In order to heighten the realism of their scenarios, Fort Irwin’s Lizards must make an effort to integrate the insights of Afghan-American and Iraqi-American trainers more effectively. In this particular piece of stagecraft, success is measured not in standing ovations or encores, but in conflicts averted and lives saved.

Amira Valliani ’10 is a Political Science major in Silliman College. Contact her at