Fighting a high-tech war with a low-tech mule
US Marines and soldiers are training to fight in Afghanistan, where mules and donkeys can haul supplies and weapons to places where Humvees and helicopters can't easily go.
Tucked at the base of a small mountain in the eastern Sierras is a makeshift paddock where a handful of US Marine Corps instructors reach deep into the history of warfare to give their charges a critical skill when they deploy to Afghanistan: how to pack a mule.Skip to next paragraph
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It is a peculiar course to teach in a military that is widely considered the best-trained, most capable, and highest-tech in the world.
The American military experience during the past several years has been so defined by the Iraq war that many combat-hardened troops have never deployed to Afghanistan. The shift requires personnel from grunts to generals to tap into unique forms of know-how and to relearn the counterinsurgency lessons of Iraq in a new context.
The differences between Iraq and Afghanistan are striking: Afghanistan offers more complex linguistic and cultural challenges, a more sophisticated and perhaps determined enemy, and a rugged mountain terrain that is among the most forbidding and remote landscapes anywhere in the world.
Afghanistan's rural insurgency is far removed from the urban-based fighters in Iraq. The Taliban in Afghanistan tend to operate in larger groups than the terrorists who planted roadside bombs to attack American forces in Iraq.
The cultures, while both Islamic, are also vastly different. In addition to being predominantly Sunni (unlike the mostly Shiite Iraq), Afghanistan has a rich layer of tribes, ethnicities, and other cultural and linguistic groups that require American forces to have a far more sophisticated understanding of their "area of responsibility."
Marines operating in Iraq's Anbar Province, for example, worked in a fairly homogeneous Sunni region. But in Afghanistan, one tribe can live a valley away from another tribe but speak a different language. These tribes often have distinct motivations and deep-seated suspicions of each other.
"Afghanistan offers a different problem completely," says Terry Walker, a retired Marine Corps chief warrant officer who trained Iraqi forces in Anbar and is now training the military in the US for both fights. "Afghanistan has never known anything else but tribalism – and of the worst stripe."
More immediately obvious upon arriving in Afghanistan are the extreme terrain and climate. While Iraq is known for its stifling summer heat and mostly broad desert plains, Afghanistan offers low deserts and rugged mountain ranges with high-altitude cold. That means changing the training troops receive.
For example, helicopters can have difficulty flying at Afghanistan's higher elevations – between 5,000 and 14,000 feet. The altitude makes it tougher for helicopters to carry heavy loads, and engines need more fuel to run in the thinner mountain air. Pilots must learn a new set of techniques.
The nature of the enemy threat, too, is different. The Taliban use small arms and rocket-propelled grenades to target helicopters. That means pilots must fly higher in Afghanistan than they do in Iraq, where the main weapons used against US troops are roadside bombs and attacks against helicopters are less frequent.
Afghanistan's high altitude can have a withering effect on even the most fit marine or soldier. Sgt. Scott Moss, who teaches mountain sniping techniques here, tells students to do leg and lung conditioning prior to deployment.
Heavy loads, like packs of 70 pounds or more, can be extremely difficult to carry during the first two weeks in a high-altitude environment, he says.
"Ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain," says Sergeant Moss as he stands in the middle of a mountain road here.
ENTER THE MULES. In a place as demanding as Afghanistan, the military must look at "sustainment" – the resupply, care, and feeding of the force – in a new way. The result: mule school.
Some of Afghanistan's high terrain is so inhospitable that helicopters can't fly to forward bases. Yet, working among the populace is crucial to a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Since the workhorse of the military, the Humvee, can't cross many mountain passes, mules are the best alternative, officers say.