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Some 4,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne are preparing to fight in Afghanistan. They'll be part of one of that war's most challenging operations this spring: taking Kandahar, the home of the Taliban.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman watched some of them complete a training mission at Fort Polk in the pine forests of Louisiana.

(Soundbite of beep)

Unidentified Man: Roger that, good copy (unintelligible) Romeo...

TOM BOWMAN: It's late morning when a line of Humvees roll through a village and into a combat outpost. They pass a checkpoint of Afghan soldiers and turn into a compound of high concrete walls. Well, not exactly concrete. Scratch the wall and you'll hear...

(Soundbite of Styrofoam)

BOWMAN: ...a high-pitched squeak of Styrofoam. Those Afghan soldiers at the gate aren't what they seem either. Sure, they look the part with their old camouflage uniforms, right down to the Afghan flag patch. But then one begins to speak.

Private PAUL HINES (U.S. Army): We just play this role and try and help out the American forces.

BOWMAN: That's Paul Hines, a lanky 20-year-old Army private from Louisiana playing the part of an Afghan soldier at this fake firebase.

When this brigade of 101st heads over to Afghanistan, they'll be expected to fight as a team with Afghan soldiers, so here they work with role players, everyone from real Afghans portraying politicians to American private like Hines playing inexperienced Afghan soldiers.

Pvt. HINES: We're not as high-speed like the American forces. We try to act like, hey, wants going on? We don't know. Y'all need to train us.

BOWMAN: Not as high speed. That's an accurate picture. American soldiers in Afghanistan say some Afghan troops fight, but many just don't.

Private First Class Christopher Mosely is also playing an Afghan soldier. Here's his take on the Afghans.

Private First Class CHRISTOPHER MOSELY (U.S. Army): Just not qualified just yet. They're getting there though.

BOWMAN: So how do you portray that as an Afghan soldier, that you're not quite ready?

Pfc. MOSELY: You do it, but not to the best of your ability. I wouldn't say halfway, but 75 percent, you know.

BOWMAN: The 101st has been training here for three weeks. Already there's growing friction between the Americans and those playing the Afghan troops.

Here's what happened. The Americans refused to let the Afghans go on a mission, so one of the Afghan role-players, portrayed by Staff Sergeant Travis Longmore, confronts Captain Mike Miller.

Sergeant TRAVIS LONGMORE (U.S. Army): Right now, the commander and I are on the verge of not doing any missions at all, because if we feel that we're not being included, you know, it's disrespectful.

BOWMAN: Not doing any missions, that's a big threat. In Afghanistan, the Americans can only enter a house with Afghans. Miller, the American commander, has to act fast.

Captain MIKE MILLER (U.S. Army): I apologize for my soldiers. They are out of their lane. You are a very well-trained, well-disciplined force. I hope our relationship continues to improve.

BOWMAN: Captain Miller's apology smoothes things over. He'll need to use this sort of flattery when dealing with real Afghan soldiers.

Captain MILLER: We'll make sure it happens on this operation.

BOWMAN: With this disagreement settled, the captain unfolds a map as the Afghan role-players look on. An interpreter lends an air of authenticity.

Unidentified Man #1 (Interpreter): (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: As they wait for the mission to start, soldiers stand around their Humvees. Most of them, like Private First Class William Hunt, have never served in Afghanistan, only in Iraq.

Private First Class WILLIAM HUNT (U.S. Army): It's going to be a totally different fight. You know, it's not going to be anything like Iraq.

BOWMAN: That's because the top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, wants the soldiers to protect the population, not hunt for insurgents.

Pfc. HUNT: You know, we're going to pretty much influence and manipulate the people of the villages to get them to see it our way, you know? It's a little different. I think it's going to be a lot less blowing (bleep) up and more working with the people.

BOWMAN: Working with the people. That's a big part of this training exercise -how to take a village without killing civilians.

Commanders are tightening the rules for when a soldier can shoot, known as the rules of engagement, or R-O-E.

Part of that change: searching buildings to make sure there are no women or children. Another change: soldiers can no longer fire warning shots at cars. But there's a price.

Captain MILLER: Yes, as the ROE gets more restrictive compared to what it has been in the past, we assume more risk on our soldiers.

BOWMAN: The Americans and their Afghan partners drive out of the outpost. Almost immediately, they encounter a problem - another sign of how difficult it will be if winning the war means winning over the population.

An Afghan role-player flags down Captain Miller. Troops have ordered an Afghan official's car to the side of the road.

Unidentified Man #2 (Afghan Role-Player): You cannot stop him anytime, because he's in charge of this province.

Captain MILLER: That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to move him off to the side of the road so we can pass him as well.

BOWMAN: Captain Miller hops back in his Humvee and shakes his head.

Captain MILLER: He's like, You can't stop me. I'm like, I'm not, I'm trying to pass you.

BOWMAN: One more frustration for an Army captain learning to play diplomat. Sometime in June he'll be in Afghanistan putting both roles to the test.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you can get a look at those war games at our Web site, npr.org. There's an audio slideshow on the 101st Airborne featuring NPR photojournalist David Gilkey's award-winning images of the war in Afghanistan.

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