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Marines Get Crash Course in Afghan Culture in California Model Village

March 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A model Afghan village situated in the California desert is helping some U.S. Marines gain a better understanding of cultural differences and adapt to challenges when they are deployed to Afghanistan. Carl Nasman, a graduate journalism student at the University of California, Berkeley, reports.

GWEN IFILL: Next, another in our occasional reports from journalism students around the country — tonight: giving U.S. forces a crash course in Afghan culture.

At today’s White House news conference, President Obama said the furor over the Quran burning incident last month showed the challenges for allied troops in Afghanistan.

Dealing with those challenges and gaining a better understanding of cultural differences is the aim of a program based in the remote desert of Southern California.

Our report, prepared before the Quran burning, is from Carl Nasman. He’s a graduate student in the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley.

CARL NASMAN, University of California, Berkeley: It looks and sounds like a typical Afghan village. But these Marines are nowhere near Afghanistan. They’re patrolling a multimillion-dollar recreation.

Lance Corporal Derek Hicks is one of the Marines on patrol.

LANCE CPL. DEREK HICKS, U.S. Marine Corps: This is basically typical of a lot of villages in Afghanistan. We were deployed there last year. And there were a few towns that were similar to this that we were patrolling through. So it’s very realistic.

CARL NASMAN: The mock Afghan village is at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base outside of San Diego. Even from my vantage point above the action, the scene below seems real.

The training facility is less than 2 years old. It’s one of three mock villages on Marine Corps bases across the country. Hundreds of Marines pass through here every week before deploying to Afghanistan.

One of them is Sgt. Christopher Roberts.

SGT. CHRISTOPHER ROBERTS, U.S. Marine Corps: The first time you go on a patrol, you’re going to be kind of just overwhelmed with all of the culture, the scenery, trying to figure out what’s going on, how to deal with these people. If you don’t get something like this, you’re doing it for the first time in Afghanistan. That’s not a good day.

CARL NASMAN: Marines here learn more than just combat. They’re taking a crash course in Afghan culture.

SGT. CHRISTOPHER ROBERTS: We get all kinds of cultural awareness training. And it definitely plays a huge factor. You might want to like wave at somebody or kind of point to a certain direction. But if we know that’s something that that local area, they kind of look at that as an insult, compared to what we would, we go through that training. So my guys are able to kind of stop themselves before they do it.

CARL NASMAN: Their teachers are Afghan-Americans, hired for a role only they can play.

LANCE CPL. DEREK HICKS: They come up and try to shake your hand on patrol and stuff, try to offer you food and stuff, just like a typical Afghani. It’s good training to have the role players out here, because I think, without them, it would kind of be pointless to be running the training.

DIRK LENS, SpecPro Technical Services: Back when I was still a Marine, I wish I would of had this training, because the only thing you use for opposing forces is another Marine wearing a T-shirt on his head or a Marine yelling, screaming, and kind of acting like a fool, so to speak. And you don’t get that realism.

CARL NASMAN: Dirk Lens is a former Marine and a military training coordinator for SpecPro Technical Services, one of dozens of private companies hiring role players for specialized military training.

DIRK LENS: The unit may request — it could be anything from Somalis. You could have Yemeni folks. You could have, you know, Afghans. It all depends on what the needs of the Marine Corps is. And then we will try to facilitate that as much as possible.

CARL NASMAN: Just outside his office early in the morning, the Afghan role players start arriving for work.

Alyass Kazimi is one of nearly 500 Afghan role players on SpecPro’s payroll. Thousands more work for other companies nationwide. The war in Afghanistan created a steady stream of U.S.-based jobs for Afghan immigrants, especially here at Camp Pendleton. Role playing is an important source of income for Afghan-Americans, a community hit hard by the recession.

ABDUL SAMAY NAWABI, Afghan role player: I was looking for work, as, you know, everybody else who — and this is the kind of job I heard that I can do because I speak many languages.

CARL NASMAN: Sam Nawabi and other role players can make a few hundred dollars a day working at the base.

ABDUL SAMAY NAWABI: It pays my bills. I’m the only person working at my house right now. My wife is new to the United States. She doesn’t speak English. And I have a little over a year-old daughter.

CARL NASMAN: But role playing is more than just a paycheck. The break room is a meeting place for Afghans, where new and old cultures mix.

ALYASS KAZIMI: There’s the elder generation that have the — that culture is really stuck to them from Afghanistan. And then there’s the other ones that you have, where they are blended in between, like the melting pot, or just multiple — you have got the young guys who like hanging out, having fun.

ABDUL SAMAY NAWABI: We learn a lot more from each other, yes. Sitting with your own Afghan people, speaking your language, we get together to start talking, actually, we’re being ourselves. We’re being ourselves. And we’re kind of like mixed up. We’re American and we’re Afghan. We’re American and we’re Afghan.

HANIF MOHEBI, Council on American-Islamic Relations: The Afghan community is still figuring it out. What is our position in the American dream?

CARL NASMAN: Hanif Mohebi is the executive director of the San Diego chapter of CARE, the Council on American-Islamic relations. He says role playing is an controversial job in the Afghan community.

HANIF MOHEBI: Some feel that, yes, this is a great thing to do. We’re serving America and we’re serving Afghanistan, both at the same time. It’s like hitting two birds with one stone.

But, at the same time, you have those who believe that, you know, this is not necessarily an honorable job, because you’re taking the side of, if we may, an oppressor.

ABDUL SAMAY NAWABI: I heard a few negative things. They said, like, selling yourself out.

CARL NASMAN: Role players walk a thin line, especially in San Diego, a city with strong military ties. Discrimination against Afghans and other Muslims flared up after 9/11, when it was discovered that two of the 9/11 hijackers, none of them Afghan, lived here before the attacks.

ALYASS KAZIMI: I just questioned where, you know, like, politically, I would stand, or with my beliefs where I would stand with it, because, one, I didn’t know what the military was aiming for in, you know, Afghanistan. Two, I didn’t know what exactly, you know, they wanted from us here.

You know, I have roots both places. Yes, I was born here. So does my — but my parents were born there.

CARL NASMAN: Now, a decade after the United States invaded Afghanistan, role players are still coming to terms with their ties to both countries.

ALYASS KAZIMI: It was like, I was trying to do something, if you can see.

CARL NASMAN: Outside the base, Alyass is an art student studying graphic design.

ALYASS KAZIMI: This is actually another one. This is my peace tree.

CARL NASMAN: His work is influenced by his dual identities.

ALYASS KAZIMI: At the roots, the roots of peace are war.

CARL NASMAN: In a way, that’s kind of what your job is a little bit like during the day, right? It’s like, you’re not going there to help people, like, become better killing machines.

ALYASS KAZIMI: No, no, definitely not, man. I mean, honestly, that’s the only reason why I do it, is because, at the end of the day, like, I can tell that these Marines are learning something.

CARL NASMAN: Three years ago, this was a mock Iraqi village. But as that war wound down, the military built a new Afghan village. Iraqi role players were let go and Afghans took their place.

DIRK LENS: I think the only thing that will change, obviously, is the type of role player, the type of culture that they may ask for. Three years from now, we could be asking for, you know, Iranians. We could be asking for, you know, Koreans, who knows.

CARL NASMAN: For now, the training continues with Afghans. But Marine combat troops will start leaving Afghanistan next year, and virtually all troops will be gone by 2014.