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Contractor helps troops gain conversation skills for war zone

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The culmination of a four-week course in civil affairs is a role-playing field exercise on Quantico Marine Base for marines before they deploy to Afghanistan. The course transforms Camp Upshur into "Upshuristan" and aims to teach marines how to interact with local populations.

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In a mock Afghan village on the Quantico Marine base, Sloan Mann, a military contractor, guided several Marines into a sweltering concrete room. They came to meet a fake mullah, played by an Afghan American actor. Mann, a former Army infantry officer, watched as the Marines practiced the seemingly straightforward tactic of chatting up Afghan village leaders.

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But the Marines, weeks from deploying to Helmand province, stumbled through their conversations. Their encounters with the "mullah" felt like bad first dates, with the Americans posing robotic questions about the village. Sgt. Walton Cabrera, 25, an aspiring police officer from Southern California, sat before the mullah but couldn't ease into a groove. "So . . . how's everything in the village so far?" he asked. "Has the population changed?"

Armed with a pen and report card, Mann, 36, handed up harsh feedback. "No rapport," he wrote.

Pulling Marines aside near a mock Afghan bazaar, Mann told them: "You guys don't like building rapport? Chill. Have a conversation. Hang out with them. You meet a woman in a bar. You don't say: 'Are you single? How many kids do you have?' It's the same principle."

As U.S. forces continue fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, some service members are struggling with a relatively new kind of training beyond marksmanship or rapid-response attacks: learning how to use cunning, charm and empathy to stabilize a war zone.

Since mid-2009, Mann's seven-person company, Development Transformations, based in Dupont Circle, has worked on a multi-year federal contract worth more than $1 million -- and potentially millions more -- to train troops, diplomats and aid workers how to use everyday conversation to uncover a region's hidden grievances and beat back insurgents.

But not everyone in military and foreign policy circles embraces the approach, formally known as "District Stability Framework," which requires service members to ask villagers four questions about their problems and then execute development plans based on the answers.

"Some units say it makes perfect sense, others say, 'No,' " said Jim Derleth, senior interagency training adviser at the Army's Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany, who developed the curriculum a few years ago. "The problem is they have to qualify on weapons range and medical testing, so this stuff seems fuzzy and academic to them. Some people haven't accepted it and think, 'Well, if we invade Iran, we'll need our traditional skill sets.' "

At Quantico, Mann seemed frustrated by the Marines' inability to schmooze, through interpreters, with Dari-speaking strangers. As Cabrera interrogated the mullah, one of several Afghan role players hired by a contractor, the questions bounced joylessly from subject to subject.

"What kind of needs do you have?" Cabrera asked the mullah.

"As you can see," the mullah said, "we don't have much food and water. There's not enough schooling. There's no doctor."

A few seconds passed in silence. Cabrera looked down at his notebook, searching for something to say. "With that being said, has the population changed?" he asked.


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