Welcome to the Afghan War -- in the Mojave (pictures)

Army units preparing to be deployed to Afghanistan must first spend three weeks in scenario training at the service's National Training Center at Fort Irwin. CNET Road Trip 2012 stopped by to investigate.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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RPG firing

FORT IRWIN, Calif.--With the United States still fighting in Afghanistan, it's certain that many more Army units will be deployed to the middle east before the war draws to a close. And what is also certain is that most, if not all, of those units will make a trip to this giant base in the Mojave desert first.

This is the Army's National Training Center, where since 1981 the service has helped its soldiers get ready for battles they might have to fight in the future. Until 2004, the training was focused on Cold War-era adversaries, but in the wake of 9/11, the Army re-engineered Fort Irwin's curriculum to prepare soldiers for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially because the base's terrain -- harsh desert and even harsher mountains -- has a lot in common with what soldiers might encounter in the Middle East.

Almost every month, a new brigade of around 6,000 soldiers rolls into the base, about 30 miles northeast of Barstow, Calif., for three weeks of training. The first two take place in mock villages against members of the Army's 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, a unit posted permanently to Fort Irwin that is tasked with playing the enemy. Those battles involve blanks, but a careful assessment of who is "killed" or "injured," and how the visiting unit does.

The last week involves heading way down range into the seemingly endless desert for live-fire target practice.

In this Army photo, taken last month, an "insurgent" fires a rocket-propelled grenade at members of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, from Fort Lewis, Wash., who have come to Ft. Irwin for their training.

As part of Road Trip 2012, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stopped in on Fort Irwin this week to find out how the Army trains the brigades it will soon be sending into the combat zone.

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Truck explosion

Every unit's training begins with six days of repeating a scenario involving trying to rescue four soldiers "injured" when their Humvee is blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED).

In this Army photo, the initial explosion begins the scenario, which tasks the visiting unit with coming into the village to try to rescue any Army soldiers still alive after the bombing.

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Live artillery fire

After two weeks of scenario training in the village, the unit moves deeper into the desert for live fire training, including trying to hit targets with artillery.

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Ertebat Shar from afar

The largest of Fort Irwin's 13 mock villages is known as Ertebat Shar, which is seen here from afar during the base's general summer break.

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Ertebat Shar sign

Ertebat Shar has been portrayed as both an Afghani and Iraqi village in recent years. Prior to 2004, though, it would have been the center of mock Cold War-style battles.

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Destroyed car

A car that appears to have been significantly shot up sits by the side of the road in Ertebat Shar.

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Main mosque

In its current incarnation, Ertebat Shar is laid out like an Afghan village, and features many things soldiers might see in such a town, like a large central mosque. Ertebat Shar has several mosques.

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Welcome to Fort Irwin

Visitors to Fort Irwin, including thousands of Army soldiers every month, pass this sign welcoming them to the National Training Center.

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Tank xing

Signs like this let visitors know they are in somewhere a little different from an average California desert town.

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Rolling into town

During scenario training in Ertebat Shar, members of the Army's 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division roll into the village in Humvees and other military vehicles.

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Village full of people

To make the scenario training more realistic, the Army hires locals to play the role of Aghan villagers. When reacting to attacks, the soldiers must contend with locals who are themselves trying to deal with the chaos of battle suddenly breaking out in their village. Part of what determines whether the soldiers are successful in their training is how they handle the "locals."

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Insurgent running for cover

An "insurgent," played by a soldier from the Army's 11th Armored Calvary Regiment, runs for cover during a mock battle in Ertebat Shar last month.

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Firing out the window

During a scenario playing out in Ertebat Shar, chaos reigns as Army soldiers contend with attacks coming at them from all directions. Here, an "insurgent" fires at soldiers from inside a building.

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Taking cover

Members of the Army's 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division take cover behind a Humvee during a mock battle at Fort Irwin, the service's National Training Center, in the Mojave Desert.

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Rounding a corner

Army soldiers prepare to round a corner in the middle of a mock battle taking place during their three weeks at Fort Irwin. As preparation for going to war in Afghanistan, the soldiers must contend with two weeks of such battles, some of which follow a script every unit must play out, and some of which are unique.

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Entering a room

Soldiers of the Army's 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division enter a room in a building in the mock Afghan village of Ertebat Shar, located at Fort Irwin, the service's National Training Center.

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Apprehending a local

A common scenario finds the Army soldiers contending with Afghan insurgents attacking them as they try to rescue an injured comrade. Their task is to restore order, and that can involve apprehending their attackers instead of "killing" them.

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Just outside the village of Ertebat Shar is this forward operating base, which is used in the second week of training. Soldiers will be based out of the FOB, and will find villagers coming to them to try to solve certain issues. How they respond to those requests will likely determine if they get help from locals when contending with insurgent attacks that inevitably come.

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RPG wire

The setup of Ertebat Shar involves all kinds of mock explosives. This is a wire on which a rocket-propelled grenade is shot at soldiers from an overpass in the center of town.

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View of town

A look at Ertebat Shar from the overpass on a day when there is no training there.

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Rolling into the square

The same village square is seen during a training scenario.

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Fake blood stains

The training at Fort Irwin begins with having to rescue fellow soldiers who have been "injured" in an IED attack on an Army vehicle. Though taken on a day when there is no training, "blood" stains remain on the ground where the explosion takes place.

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Mountain of insignia

On the entrance road to Fort Irwin, this rock formation has been totally covered with the insignia of countless Army units that have visited the National Training Center over the years.

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An Army unit known as the Dragons, from Fort Riley in Kansas, left its insignia on this rock at Fort Irwin.

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Comms tower

This communications tower in the middle of Ertebat Shar belongs to the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment, which uses it to send in reports on the training battles taking place during soldiers' training.

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