STANFORD TRAINING AREA, England – Deep in the countryside of eastern England, British troops train in a mock Afghan village designed to look, feel, and sound like the real thing.
The Associated Press was shown around the 12,000-hectare (30,000-acre) training complex this month, as troops who will deploy to Helmand province in the real Afghanistan this spring trained alongside dozens of Afghan exiles.
The facility, built in 2008, is meant to replicate a typical village in Helmand, with houses, shops and open markets, and the exiles playing the role of villagers.
Soldiers patrol the bazaar, where plastic fruit fills the crates. An Afghan "villager" tries to get a soldier to trade him his gun for a bicycle.
Officers say the site provides critical training for troops, most of whom have never been to Afghanistan. Maj. Marcus Luckyn-Malone said the exercises help "soldiers of all ranks understand what it is to operate in Helmand."
Central to the training is soldiers' interactions with the "locals."
Afghans in traditional dress loiter in the bazaar, while the unit's commander meets with "village elders." They complain; he apologizes. The village is staffed by some 120 exiles. They say they are here to help British forces navigate the culture of southern Afghanistan.
"When British troops go to Afghanistan, they will learn something from us," says Amanullah Darwish, an Afghan former police officer who came to Britain in 1999. "That's why so many of our people are here."
There's military training too. A helicopter hovering over purple smoke practiced evacuating a wounded soldier.
When soldiers trudging through the woodland came under simulated automatic weapons fire, they ran, took cover, and fired back.
"Having a village like this, having Afghans portray Afghan policemen and Afghan soldiers and local nationals — it just adds to that realism," said Maj. Gen. John Lorimer, who commanded British forces in Helmand in 2007 and was here to watch the exercise.
How long the village exists remains to be seen. Britain's role in Afghanistan divides public opinion, and Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that all British combat troops will be pulled out by the end of 2014.