Lt. Col. Ross Lightsey, of the 101st Airborne Division, walks away from a military operations tent at Fort Campbell, Ky., on Friday. The 101st is training with international partners for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan this winter. (Kristin M. Hall / AP)
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — In the middle of Fort Campbell, a simulated version of a military operations center in Afghanistan has sprung up under a maze of tents, and it's bustling with activity from international and American military forces.
American, Polish and French military officials are practicing military operations at the U.S. Army post this week and next as they will be doing together this winter, when the 101st Airborne Division returns to Afghanistan to lead NATO troops in eastern provinces of the country.
About 450 people were brought in for the weeklong training exercise that includes about 1,000 military officials, including personnel who are participating from Germany and Afghanistan. The exercise, called Unified Endeavor, tests different possible scenarios likely to face the division in Afghanistan, from directing artillery or aircraft support, to coordinating medical evacuations, to resupplying combat outposts.
The training area is secure from the rest of the Army installation, surrounded by razor wire and fences; sessions run from about 11 p.m. to noon CST each day so they can work at the same time as their counterparts overseas.
French Maj. Nicolas Konieczny, who works for NATO's Joint Force Training Centre in Poland, said this coalition exercise allows different militaries to learn the same NATO systems and procedures used in Afghanistan.
"It's a common approach because the United States are providing the major part of the coalition forces, but they have to work with all the other nations," he said. "Every nation has its own language, but when they have to work together, they need this NATO language."
Col. Andrew Poppas, a deputy commanding general for the division, said that even though many of the division's leaders have experience from their previous deployment to Afghanistan during the troop surge in 2010 and 2011, the strategy is not the same.
"I think the strength we have is trying to share the experiences we have had and making sure our intent is not to go back and fight our old fight better this time, because we know the dynamics on the ground have changed," he said.
The number of NATO troops has decreased steadily throughout this year, from a peak of about 140,000 to just more than 100,000 now. And some units deploying to Afghanistan are serving primarily as advisers to Afghan military and police units.
Poppas said that in the previous deployment, their goal was to fight the insurgents that were moving across the Pakistan border and destroy their safe havens in the remote areas of eastern Afghanistan. Previously the U.S. soldiers partnered with their Afghan counterparts, but now the Afghans have to take the lead with advice and support from the division, he said.
"The Afghans are in the front," he said. "There is an increase in their numbers, the Army, the police, the border patrol. Not only just numbers, but capability and capacity."
Brig. Gen. Dave Corbould of the Canadian Army is joining the 101st Airborne Division during the deployment as a deputy commanding general. He said training for the departure of international combat forces by 2014 requires a mental shift for NATO troops working with Afghans.
"What we need to do is step back and continue in that advisory role to allow them and encourage them and reinforce their successes, as opposed to always taking the lead," he said.
Lt. Col. Ross Lightsey, a civil affairs officer with the division, said the division is also focusing on supporting the Afghan civilians and government, even in areas of Afghanistan that are far removed from the capital of Kabul.
"We do want to focus on some of the governors who really have good leadership in Regional Command East," he said. "A lot of the provincial governors and the district governors are reaching down to the populace because those are people they are accountable for."