Thursday, February 23, 2006

FTX Highlights

I'm back from the field, and as anticipated, it was not a big deal. Although the ops tempo was almost ridiculously laid back, the civil affairs training was actually pretty good, especially the interaction with the "Arab" role players. Herein are some quick highlights of our 72-hour war:

- On our way out to Camp MacKall on the first day, we meet an Arab "militia" operating in the "Republic of Pineland." The Army contracts Arab-Americans to be role players for these exercises in order to give us practice interacting with the indigenous population we'll encounter in Iraq. So for 15 minutes our vans are surrounded by young men carrying AK-47s, with only their eyes visible through the headscarves they are wearing, while our student leaders go out to talk to the local "Sheikh." The local militia agrees to escort us to our Forward Operating Base, FOB Freedom.

Outside FOB Freedom, about 20 "demonstrators" block the road and hold anti-American placards. (The demonstrators, incidentally, look conspicously like off-duty grunts and their girlfriends). Although I've seen anti-American protests up close outside army posts in Korea (not to mention at Harvard, but that's another story), this demonstration was somehow effectively menacing enough to convey the realism of the exercise.

The FOB itself was about the size of a football field, surrounded by triple strand concertina wire and guard towers. With two rows of quonset huts in the center of the field, it felt as if we were in an internment camp. (It turns out that when this facility is not in use by Civil Affairs, Special Forces uses it to practice conducting raids). As expected, the tents are heated, and despite the freezing temperatures outside at night, the sauna-like conditions actually made it difficult to sleep at night.

- As noted earlier, our operations tempo was painfully slow, with only two primary missions per day. On our first day, my team was assigned to assess a potential site for a well (the nearby town, "Freedom Village," was suffering from a water shortage because of the civil war in Pineland, as well as an outbreak of dissentery) and assess a damaged bridge for repair possibilities in order to boost local economic development. On both missions, an actor portrayed a USAID representative, and other actors played indigenous personnel who either interfered or aided the mission, depending upon how we reacted.

On the bridge assessment, I was responsible for "far security," meaning I went past the far side of the bridge to watch for any insurgents or civilians. The only person who approached was a North Carolina State Trooper, which was actually cause for serious concern. A few years ago, some Special Forces soldiers were participating in a similar exercise at Camp MacKall and were approached by a local police officer just off post. They thought he was part of the "game," and drew their fake weapons on him. He didn't know that they were acting out a scenario, drew his weapon and fired on them, killing one and seriously wounding the other. So when I saw the trooper approach, I quickly threw my hands in the air, warned him about my fake 9mm, and told him we were in an exercise. (Apparently, he only wanted to know about a jeep that had been parked near the bridge for a day to ensure it wasn't local teenagers screwing around on post). When I came back to the team at the end of the mission, I took some ribbing for surrendering so quickly.

- Our daytime missions on the second day focused on foreign nation support, and included assessments of an airport in Hamlet, NC, and the police station in Aberdeen. This time, local civilians were generous enough with their time to allow us to pester them with questions. In their own small way, these North Carolinians can proudly say they are making a contribution to our national security by helping to train our Civil Affairs and Special Forces officers/soldiers. Driving through rural North Carolina, I couldn't help but be struck by how many small, ramshackle churches dotted the countryside. It seemed as if every mile we passed another one story, or two-room building with name like: "Church of God in Christ," "Jubilee World of Faith Church," "Action of Christ Ministry," or "New Jerusalem Holiness Church." Unless you have ever spent significant time in the Bible Belt, it is impossible to understand how important religion is to large segments of this country. And although I do not share their doctrinal beliefs, few things bother me as much as the condescension of people who've never left the Northeast or university settings show towards these people of faith. But that is a rant for another time and forum.

- On the second night, my team is tasked with running the CMOC (Civil-Military Operations Center), which is basically a meeting place where the U.S. Army, the indigenous government, and IOs/NGOs meet to share information and pool resources to help look after the local population's interests during a conflict. At this CMOC, we had role players representing USAID, UNHCR, UNHA, UNDP, and various NGOs. I was working security at the front door of the CMOC when the local Arab governor and lieutenant governor arrived with an armed entourage and an interpreter. My team leader, a tough Navy Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) from Texas, came to the door to greet them, and all hell broke loose.

Although the Governor entered the CMOC without any problems, the Lt. Governor demanded that his bodyguards (again, masked by headscarves and carrying AK-47s) be allowed into the meeting as well. My leader was determined to enforce a prior agreement that no militia would be allowed into the meeting, not realizing the catch was that these were personal bodyguards rather than militia. An argument ensued, during which the Navy LCDR unintentionally made gestures that are considered obscene in the Arab world. I tried to tell him to flatter and praise the Sheikh, but either he didn't hear me, or was trying to establish his authority. Rather than taking a conciliatory approach and seeking bargaining space, he took a "My Way or the Highway" approach that offended the Lt. Governor. When the Lt. Governor turned to leave, the LCDR grabbed the interpreter with his LEFT hand, a major no-no in Arab culture. The Governor exited as well, and the meeting had to be conducted without any representation from the local government.

While at DoD, I attended a lot of meetings with Iraqi officials, and consequently recognized many of these mistakes as they were occuring, but could not intervene without undermining my leader's authority. The instructors were, um, less than pleased about how events transpired. One cadre described the LDCR's actions as "beligerent, dismissive, and disruptive." In his defense, he strikes me as an excellent officer who only needs a little work on his diplomatic skills. And since that was the point of this exercise, the fiasco ended up being an instructive moment for the class.

- The next morning we received a mission to meet with the same Lt. Governor about an undisclosed topic. This time, the Army Captain acting as team leader designated me his assistant and "cultural advisor." I prepared a script for him that ensured he would use certain key words (i.e. honor, respect, praising his reputation as a caring leader) to show the proper respect to the Sheikh, and he did an excellent job. (The topic the Lt. Gov. wanted to discuss was the alleged rape of a local teenage girl by an unidentified American soldier, and they even brought along an Arab woman who shrieked and cried throughout the meeting. Forget Reese Witherspoon, this woman deserves the Oscar).

They also threw us a curve ball by having role players representing "Pineland Network News" show up during the meeting. As I saw them approach, everything I overheard during my five months sitting in the NSC's press office suddenly kicked in. I rushed to meet them before they could set up, made them show credentials, checked with the Sheikh that they had his permission to be there, and established the ground rules that they could only take three minutes of still shots with no sound due to the sensitivity of the negotiations. In the AAR (After Action Review), the role players said this was the best any team had ever done of handling the press, not knowing my background. (The contractor playing the Lt. Gov. broke character for a few minutes during the AAR, and we had a good laugh about the confrontation from the night before).

- That day, we ended the exercise about 18 hours ahead of schedule. Apparently the officers attending the nine week Civil Affairs course needed the tents for their field problem, and given that we really had no more missions remaining, there was no reason to keep us out there. Some other time I'll comment on the utter chaos that is surrounding the effort to train and deploy the mass of reservists here for Iraq.