FORT POLK — In training exercises in a mock Afghan village constructed here on a base amid swampland, the U.S. Army is applying the military lesson of the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq: Help your partners beat the enemy, but don't try to do the fighting yourself.
Letting others fight the battle hasn't been the American way in modern times, to our immense national frustration. The U.S. military became bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, much as it had a generation earlier in Vietnam, by trying to reshape societies with U.S. firepower. For the military, the lesson from these quagmires is to step back — and help local forces with training, advice and air power.
Fort Polk is a final warmup for the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, one of the Trump administration"s most innovative military experiments. About 1,000 soldiers are being trained here this month before deploying this spring to Afghanistan. The preparatory exercises all focus on the same basic theme: Step back and insist that partners do the front-line combat.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command chief who oversees military operations from Libya to Afghanistan, brought me along on a visit Thursday to the SFAB final training site. He summed up the concept behind the new brigade this way: "We have to let our partners own it. That's hard for us to do. It's in our DNA to dive in. But our job is to help our partners fight, not fight for them."
The Afghanistan simulations are carefully staged in the military version of a movie set — with a mosque tower, goats meandering in the street, peddlers hawking flowers and posters of President Ashraf Ghani on the walls of make-believe Afghan National Army headquarters. The idea is to make soldiers "comfortable with the uncomfortable," says Maj. Gen. Gary Brito, the commander at Fort Polk.
Our job is to help our partners fight, not fight for them.
Over 14 days of training, the soldiers practice helping Afghan partners reclaim a police station from the Taliban in the imaginary village of "Marwandi" and arrest a Taliban financier who's sheltered by the local population. In one exercise, soldiers practice rescuing comrades who've gotten caught in a firefight, applying quick tourniquets to their wounds and dragging them to safety.
At each stop, Votel listens as soldiers repeat the new doctrine: "Put the ANA in the front," says a sergeant heading for Afghanistan. "We have to remove ourselves so it's not our fight." Votel replays that unconventional message to the troops through a long day. "What we're really going to rely on is your adaptability," he admonishes one advisory team.
When the brigade moves into Afghanistan in several months, it will have 36 combat advisory teams, with about a dozen members each, partnered with ANA divisions across the country. Team members will be able to request supporting fire from planes, drones and advanced artillery. Other teams will assist at headquarters and in logistics operations. They will join more than 10,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan.
The new brigade, cobbled together quickly with volunteers from divisions across the Army, is an attempt to deal with three issues vexing the Pentagon after more than 15 years of frustration: What works? How can the successful tactics be sustained? And how can the train-and-assist skills of Special Operations forces — who have been the star players in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — be spread across the Army?
U.S. Army aircraft flying over Uruzgan province, Afghanistan — Photo: Sgt. Jessi Ann McCormick/The U.S. Army
Leading this tactical review was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last spring, he began a "failure analysis" of what had and hadn't worked in the battle zones.
The new brigade illustrates a broader process of shaping military plans for the Middle East that's finally getting traction in the Trump administration after a year of discussion and delay. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the Syria piece of this strategic framework this week at Stanford University. He argued that the United States should keep train-and-assist forces in northeast Syria to aid stabilization there. Walking away from these conflict areas in the past had been a mistake, Tillerson said, but so is trying to steer local governance through nation-building.
America has been so frustrated with combat in the Middle East that people have barely noticed the victory against the Islamic State — and the partnering tactics that made it possible. U.S. collaboration with Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Shiites has made neighboring states nervous, especially Turkey. But it achieved results.
Since the days of T.E. Lawrence, analysts have argued that the people of the Middle East must fight their own battles. This simple but essential idea finally seems to have become hard-wired at the Pentagon.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.