Marine Capt. Mike Hoffman sat on the floor of a shack with an Afghan mullah and village elders and accepted a meager meal as he sought their help in the fight against the Taliban.
It was loud and confusing as he tried to listen to them debate what the town needed most — water, electricity, a police station.
"I want to hear everything you have to say. But I can only understand one of you at a time," Hoffman said through a translator.
Hoffman would later learn from culture and language instructors that he had made a serious error by seeming to dishonor the elders by quieting the debate. That could make villagers refuse to aid his troops — or even aid Taliban insurgents.
But this was not Afghanistan. And on this day there would be no retaliation. This was just practice.
The training taking place this month in the Mojave Desert at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center aims to give troops deploying to Afghanistan a preview of not only the terrain but also the culture and customs. Helping out with the training are native Afghans under contract with the military.
"When the Marines first come here, they don't know anything," said Ahmed Mansur, one of the Afghan trainers. "They don't know how to talk to the village elder. They don't know they can't search the mosque. They don't know you can never talk to a woman."
The program follows President Bush's promise to take a larger, more visible role in the war in Afghanistan. In his Sept. 9 speech, Bush outlined what he called a "quiet surge" of forces there and said even more would be sent soon.
The Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division was preparing to go to Iraq this fall when it was ordered to instead replace a battalion due to return home from Afghanistan.
As a result, the Marines spent the better part of September immersed in Afghan combat and culture training scenarios at Twentynine Palms.
The quick shift did not hinder troops because of similarities in combat between the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said Col. David Odom, the battalion commander. Still, there were enough differences to make some Afghan training essential.
The program takes a page from the Marine Corps' Iraqi program, which features towns filled with role players who replicate Iraqi life.
Maj. Matt Good, the operations officer for urban warfare training at the base, said events occurring in Afghanistan — from car bombings to Taliban attacks on outposts — are put immediately into the combat training scenarios.
"The lessons have been learned in blood," he said.
Useful, too, is the American experience with Afghan villagers, many of whom have either had no previous contact with coalition troops or have been made promises by troops that never came to fruition.
So the training exposes Marines to everything from drinking tea with village elders to learning how to search people.
"If we don't have street credibility, we are much less effective," Good said.
The village, known as Doab, isn't modeled on any specific place. But it includes what Marines might find in a typical village in southern Afghanistan, such as a mosque and farm houses and bullet-riddled, burnt-out cars that litter the streets.
At one point in the training, Hoffman walked through the village surrounded by his men, but without his rifle. It was something he would have done in an Iraqi village to show townspeople he felt secure. But in Afghanistan, trainers told him, it makes him a target for insurgents.
"You're going to see mistakes here. We need to make mistakes so we can learn from them," said Hoffman, 31, of Naperville, Ill.
Learning living skills
During a recent scenario, Marines learned never to speak to Afghan women and to direct all questions to husbands. They learned to ask the permission of the village elder to enter the town and search it.
They also learned using the Afghan police and army to approach villagers with requests met much less resistance than doing it themselves.
Mansur, 27, of Tracy, Calif., portrayed an Afghan farmer during the exercises. Mansur served in the Afghan army before moving to the United States in 2001.
Many other role players refused to be identified or photographed, citing fears of Taliban retribution against relatives back in Afghanistan. But Mansur said many were like him and believe they are helping prevent possible misunderstandings that could be fatal.
"We have to teach them so they don't get killed or kill somebody they shouldn't," he said.