Army Simulates Sheik Encounters
By David Axe
June 14, 2006
Army officers deploying to Iraq are getting advanced cultural training at a new facility at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
At Engagement University, part of the Joint Readiness Training Center, or JRTC, officers meet with Iraqi expatriates playing the roles of tribal sheiks. The meetings are integrated into the three weeks of realistic training that combat brigades undergo at JRTC -- or at the similar National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California -- before shipping to Iraq.
JRTC combines realistic tactical training lanes and a week-long "free-play" exercise -- all designed to simulate operations in Iraq. Paratroopers stand in for insurgents, actors portray Iraqi civilians and pyrotechnics experts make things blow up and burn. The training is dynamic, according to JRTC spokesman Maj. Eric Baus. "Every day the training is going to change based on the unit's actions."
In other words, if a unit accidentally "kills" civilians during a firefight with insurgents, there will be a reckoning when the unit commander is summoned to the home of the local sheik. That's where Engagement U. comes into play. The sheiks will demand compensation for damages and will withhold vital information on local insurgents until they're convinced that U.S. forces are there to help.
Lt. Col. Dennis Smith, officer-in-charge at Engagement U., oversees a small staff comprised of the Iraqi expats who portray sheiks, private contractors to maintain the gear and cultural experts and one Jordanian military exchange officer who keep the exercises grounded in reality. The staff runs a facility including several dimly-lit rooms dressed to look like Iraqi homes. Meetings are recorded by hidden cameras monitored by JRTC observer-controllers. After their meetings, officers debrief with staff.
Before meeting with their sheik or mayor, officers take classes in Iraqi culture. They learn a few Arabic phrases and how to carry themselves around Arab Muslims. They are taught to offer and accept gifts, to acknowledge the sheik's authority and to never show the soles of their feet -- a serious faux pas in Arab culture.
Smith says Engagement U. reduces the time it takes for units to orient to Iraqi culture and helps them avoid costly mistakes. "This is a big benefit to the units so they don't make the same mistakes other units make in the first 30 days [in Iraq]."
He should know. Smith did an Operation Iraqi Freedom rotation before taking over Engagement U. "I would have conducted myself differently [in Iraq] if I had known what I know now," he says.
To keep Engagement U. current, the staff regularly updates the actors' scripts based on lessons learned in Iraq and on feedback from the cultural experts who observe every meeting. With Marines facing charges for allegedly murdering civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in November, the sheiks at Engagement U. act as upset as any Iraqi civilian. On June 6, Capt. Robert Nevins from the Texas-based 1 st Cavalry Division sat down to talk about his unit's patrols through one of JRTC's faux Iraqi villages. Insurgents had attacked and civilians were injured in the crossfire.
The sheik shrugged off Nevins' apologies then mentioned Haditha. How can we trust you? he demanded.
Nevins seemed at a loss for words.
"We have young soldiers making decisions that have strategic implications," Smith says, referring to the Haditha allegations and justifying the script that stumped Nevins. We try to make our scenarios as relevant as possible.