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.