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British Soldiers Train for Deployment in Mock-Afghan Village

British soldiers from 1 Rifles, return 'fire' as they are 'ambushed' during a training session prior to deployment, at British forces' Stanford Training Area in Norfolk, England, 14 Jan 2011
British soldiers from 1 Rifles, return 'fire' as they are 'ambushed' during a training session prior to deployment, at British forces' Stanford Training Area in Norfolk, England, 14 Jan 2011

The British military has constructed a mock-Afghan village in the British countryside to give its soldiers a taste of the military and cultural challenges they will face in Afghanistan.  

Everyone is shooting blanks in a firefight to simulate an attack by Afghan insurgents, 8,000 kilometers from the front lines, on a special training ground in Britain.  

Operation Pashtun Panther is designed to get these British soldiers ready to head to Afghanistan in March.  The non-stop exercise aims to expose soldiers to everything they will encounter in Afghanistan.

Major General John Lorimer is head of strategic communications for the British military.

"We want to make training as realistic as possible, if we can give the soldiers an element of feeling 'I am in Afghanistan', when they get on and deal with some of these really tricky situations, it makes it more realistic and therefore it gives them a better chance of getting it right when they are in Afghanistan."

To help the soldiers feel like they are in Afghanistan, the military has built a mock-Afghan village in the British countryside.  There is a marketplace, with stalls full of plastic fruit and meat, a bicycle repair shop, a traditional Afghan cooking area complete with open fire, and high cement walls that form small alleys between the replica Afghan walled compounds.  

To complete the picture, the village, called Ishmaragh for this exercise, is populated it with about 120 Afghans who interact with the soldiers, so they get used to working in a foreign environment.

Second Lieutenant Andrew Steer says the cultural training will be as important as the traditional military exercises when he gets to Afghanistan.

"Yes, there will be a little bit of fighting, but I think the main reason we are out there is basically to provide security and rebuild, so I expect an awful lot of interaction with locals and trying to enable sort of construction and education," Steer said.

In addition to practicing interactions with Afghans, there is also a section about learning to work with U.S. forces.  American Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Bower is the liaison officer to the British training team.

"They are one of our biggest allies and  we have a lot in common because we have stood shoulder to shoulder for so many years," he said.

He says sometimes the biggest challenge is language.

"The stereotypes, both on our side of the fence and on the British side, of how we view each other really are not as true as we would think.  So as far as the cultures, we are very, very similar, but as far as the word usage, it is a lot different than people think,” Bower said. “Same words have different meanings."

The 600 soldiers on the exercise are trained to expect attacks from mortars, and to detect improvised explosive devices that might be planted on roads or in homes.  They have video surveillance, like drones might provide in Afghanistan

And real helicopters are used to evacuate the wounded.  Second Lieutenant Ross Hold is looking forward to deploying.

"It is a constantly changing environment and I am expecting it to be exciting,” Hold said. “I am expecting it to be challenging at times, but ultimately very rewarding."

Britain lost more than 100 soldiers in Afghanistan in 2010, about a third of the total number of British deaths in the nearly decade-long conflict.  It was Britain's bloodiest year.  That is why the British military considers this training operation essential.

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