A Step Closer to War -- From New Mexico

PLAYAS, N.M. -- Walking through this former mining town feels what it might feel like to enter a war zone.

In Afghanistan.

The Playas Training and Research Center rents out the land to government agencies for counter terrorism and first response training, and the U.S. Army is one of its clients. In 2004, New Mexico Tech bought the city for $5 million after the nearby copper mining company Phelps-Dodge, now part of Freeport McMoran (NYSE:FCX), shut down. Most of the people living in the company-owned town packed up and left with the jobs.

Now, the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss uses the property for counter insurgency training as they prepare for deployment to Afghanistan.

New Mexico Tech has made it look more real than ever, transforming the land and buildings into Afghan-like villages and an urban market. Nearly 200 role players, all Afghan-born or first generation Afghan-Americans, were hired through a contractor by New Mexico Tech to help expose the troops to what they will experience when they deploy in October. Translators interpret for the soldiers and role players.

The language, authentic music, barbequed foods, and scent of hookah deliver realism to the market and villages, which is surrounded by a mountainous landscape and dry climate that resembles Afghanistan.

The training prepares them for what theyre going to experience when they start their mission of securing the lands and building infrastructure with the Afghan government and people.

Maj. Chris Mahaffey, a training officer with the brigade, said the shock of being deployed wouldnt be so severe with this exposure.

Its not about going out to some piece of terrain and maneuvering or learning how to fight, its really learning about people and dealing with people.

The role players say the grounds feel just like their homeland.

When I walk around here, the villages, the houses, the offices, I feel like I am in Afghanistan, said one role player, Mangle Abdul, who lived in Afghanistan until he was 16. For security, Abdul did not wish to reveal his real name.

The troops missions include work with the Afghan National Police to identify and detain anyone suspicious in the village, stopping anyone who may be a threat or have ties to the Taliban.

The role players, acting as village leaders, held a conversation in a mock village with members of the brigade, discussing the U.S. Armys presence in their territory.

Knowing whats offensive, whats not offensive and what to expect is essential in your success in earning your respect of the population, said squadron commander Lt. Col. John Woodward.

Thats whats going to happen in a few short months -- assuring the Afghan leaders that they will keep their tribe secured. After securing the village, the brigade plans on building infrastructure. Ultimately, they would complete their mission by starting schools and health clinics.

The reality-based training at the Playas Research and Training Center, located just a few hours from Fort Bliss, gets the brigade ready for its next step of intensive exercise at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif.