Lessons From 'Ghanzi Province'

By Sarah Holewinski
Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Iraqis I met a few weeks ago are still fleeing car bombs and sniper fire, but they're not running for their lives. Instead, they are running for a living, earning money by playing distraught civilians in a fake Iraqi province called Ghanzi. Created by the U.S. military in California's Mojave Desert, Ghanzi is part of Fort Irwin's National Training Center, where U.S. troops prepare for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

A spot where in 1981 tanks geared up to face off with the Soviets is now littered with dusty, overturned cars theoretically hiding snipers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or injured children. It's fake, but it reflects the new set of challenges U.S. soldiers face in combat. As the base commander, Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, admitted during my visit, U.S. soldiers have for years been unprepared for this kind of fight -- one demanding that we make more friends than enemies.

Soldiers at Fort Irwin will tell you that ordinary Iraqis and Afghans are at the heart of a winning strategy for America's wars. But when snipers fire on their convoys, what should soldiers do to avoid hurting civilians when they fire back? What risks are worth taking to rescue innocent casualties after a car bomb detonates? How should troops help after an airstrike? Nearly 3,000 soldiers arrive at Fort Irwin every four weeks to run desert drills and practice answering these questions. Sometimes they make good choices; sometimes they falter. They are constantly evaluated and advised by officers and experts.

The saying at Fort Irwin is: "Make the mistakes here so you don't make them over there."

American experiences in Baghdad, Fallujah, Samarra and elsewhere have made it clear that protecting mothers and children wins points in a counterinsurgency. In the past, U.S. soldiers have overlooked the importance of winning over local people. That mistake is driven home every day in Ghanzi province. Friends can become enemies in an instant. A soldier overseeing an IED exercise told me that when he was in Iraq, once-friendly townspeople turned on U.S. soldiers in November 2005, saying simply, "You guys killed our brothers in Haditha; now we will not be brothers with you."

Soldiers coming out of Fort Irwin are taught to be ambassadors as well as fighters. Troops learn to use nonlethal weapons, communicate with local leaders, elicit help from civilians and avoid harming them. A cultural awareness program, run by a former Iraqi colonel, teaches our soldiers Arabic phrases and the etiquette expected around Iraqi women. Choreographed scenarios combine civilian protests and roadside bomb explosions to test soldiers' patience and emotions. Officers call this "pulling the thread." The goal is to teach soldiers how to control panic and anger and to practice strategic thinking amid chaos -- skills critical to avoiding civilian casualties.

The hope is that measured responses will limit the most common mistake American troops in the field make: firing potentially fatal "warning shots" too early. It is notable that the best-trained soldiers rarely pull the trigger.

The simulations are not perfect. Training is relatively orderly and mostly safe; war is disorienting, unpredictable and often lethal. The real test is how effectively the knowledge acquired here translates into combat situations.

For example, safety kits for traffic control points containing nonlethal lasers, stop signs and loudspeaker systems are effective in training situations. But they've been slow to arrive in Iraq and have been distributed only haphazardly. Each of the operations I observed at Fort Irwin assessed risk to civilians and unintended damage and provided a way to address civilian harm. The same care isn't taken to evaluate and record such threats in combat, in part because soldiers are receiving this intensive training so late. A warning shot fired in the desert surrounding Fort Irwin has few ramifications. In the dense cities of Iraq, warning shots are more likely to end up lodged in cars or hitting passersby.

Gaps between training and reality are widest in the way civilian casualties are tracked. At Fort Irwin, every "injury" and "death" is documented and analyzed. But records of civilian casualties are known to be incomplete where it counts the most -- in actual battles. The Army's reasons, such as a lack of technological capacity, ring hollow; if roadside explosions at Fort Irwin can be tracked by new software programs, why not do the same for civilian injuries and deaths that U.S. soldiers cause?

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, what's happening at Fort Irwin is critical. Four and a half years into these battles for hearts and minds, the U.S. military is using its head.

The writer is executive director of theCampaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

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