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Budget Cuts Threaten Mock Villages At Military Training Center


America has learned a lot about fighting wars over the past decade. And you can see how they apply the lessons learned at the Fort Irwin National Training Center in Southern California. The military still holds old-style war games there, with tanks and planes. But the war scenarios also reflect the recent challenges faced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like counterinsurgency operations, where the enemy doesn't wear a uniform, and looks exactly like the civilians the military is supposed to protect. Arun Rath, the weekend host of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, recently spent some time with soldiers going through the intensive training at Fort Irwin. He joins me now. Hi, Arun.


GREENE: So paint a picture for me. What is this place, Fort Irwin? What's it look like and what did you see?

RATH: Well, the idea here is total authenticity. Fort Irwin itself, it's like a mini-Afghanistan. I lost count of the number of soldiers who said that in terms of terrain to deal with, they practically couldn't tell the difference between eastern Afghanistan and this place. It's an enormous swath of desert; it's about halfway between Los Angeles and Los Vegas.

Very rugged plateau, and they have these fake Middle Eastern villages in the middle of the desert which are - they're weird. They're very close to reality in some ways, like, you know, the shops look real but the meat, and the fruit, and bread in the markets is made out of plastic.

GREENE: Well, once you get to the details you can see that it's not exactly real.

RATH: Yeah.

GREENE: Well, how has the training changed at this place over the last decade, over these 10 years of war?

RATH: Well, in the years after 9/11, the focus of the training shifted from what we might consider traditional warfare, you know, tanks, guns, uniformed armies, towards counterinsurgency - learning how to interact with locals, understanding culture as well as actual fighting.

The training extends from ways to distinguish civilians from combatants, which sometimes can be almost impossible, to learning to use new armored vehicles, to even sitting in - they have village meetings with people playing the roles of local elders that they have to interact with.

GREENE: So these are actors, actually, people playing Afghans who these military people in training have to chat with.

RATH: Right. They have it as an actual functioning village there. Most of soldiers we talked to there have been on multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and they were impressed by the level of authenticity, and they said it's kind of perfect training for those places and those kinds of situations.

GREENE: Well, if this place is so authentic, based on Afghanistan, you know, the United States is now withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, what happens to this place now that that's happening?

RATH: Yeah. And that was our main question going in. You would assume that with the end of the war, at least for the U.S., that would mean the end of these fake Afghan villages in the middle of the Mojave Desert. But when we spoke with Major General Ted Martin - he's the commanding general there at Fort Irwin - this is what he told us.

MAJOR GENERAL TED MARTIN: We're not going to lose these cities. We're not going to give it up. You know, these kind of happen to look like a little like Middle Eastern cities. It doesn't really matter; we can change the name of the cities. In the old Iraqi days they had a particular name and now they have an Afghan name. And in the future, we'll move to probably change them to another name. Just to keep people thinking.

RATH: He sounded pretty certain that nothing is going to change there in terms of that training, but people who scrutinize the Pentagon budget paint a much more uncertain picture of what's going to happen and that's really the focus of our story.

GREENE: All right. And Arun, people will hear much from you and much more about this fake Afhan villiage tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RATH: That's right.

GREENE: NPR's Arun Rath. Arun, thanks. Nice to talk to you.

RATH: Likewise. Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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