President Obama has made our commitment to Afghanistan a central plank of his foreign policy.  Everyone agrees that the reinvigorated Taliban, helped by al-Qaida in  Pakistan, represent a formidable foe in their mountainous home.  And whilst it is widely recognized that building a stable Afghanistan will require much more than the application of military force, it is equally clear that we cannot make substantive progress whilst the Taliban controls large swaths of the countryside.  

Yet there is not a single brigade-sized or larger unit in either the United States Army or Marine Corps that is specifically trained for the sort of mountain warfare that would help prepare them for combat in rugged Afghanistan. The Army’s 10th  Mountain Division, unlike its illustrious World War II predecessor, is a mountain division in name only.  It lacks any particular training or expertise in mountain warfare.

To be sure both services have mountain warfare schools but these primarily are for individual rather than unit training. No major US ground force unit is based at or regularly trains at a high elevation camp or post. This in contrast to the WWII era 10th Mountain Division which was based and trained at Camps Carson and Hale in the Colorado Rockies. 

Specialized unit training of troops for mountain warfare is both expensive and resource intensive.  It requires them to be able to become acclimated to high elevation movement and maneuver; to be equipped for the bitter cold and very possibly with new weapons, such as artillery, that are specially designed for being packed in to otherwise inaccessible terrain. Yet the rewards of training our conventional troops well enough  to go toe-to-toe with the fleet-footed Taliban warriors even in their most inaccessible redoubts and sanctuaries could be enormous.

It’s no secret that the Marines are keen to be redeployed from Iraq to the campaign in Afghanistan, where they believe their talents will better utilized..  To date, Secretary of Defence Gates has resisted the idea of having the Marines take the lead force there although a small number has already been deployed.  In fact having the Marines as the principal conventional force in Afghanistan is an excellent idea.  To win their point the Marines should immediately expand the USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center in California and ensure that every battalion slated for deployment in Afghanistan is given lengthy and sustained mountain warfare training and altitude acclimation before shipping out. 

If the Army continues to have the principal role in Afghanistan, why not make the 10th Mountain Division a mountain warfare specialist in more than just name?

We are likely to be battling the Taliban for years to come in the mountains they know so well. It is long past time we treated the challenge with the seriousness it deserves by adequately preparing our troops for what will be a long and arduous struggle.

About N J Barnes

Retired sixty-something originally from England now a U.S. citizen living in Seattle. Married with a wife and two children. I love Seattle and consider it to have been a wonderful place to live and help raise my daughters. I worked in government my whole life. Whilst I see its flaws I also understand that government can be a strong force for good in democratic societies. My interests are current affairs and military history. I consider myself to be a centrist politically by any reasonable standard but probably left of centre in today's USA.

2 Thoughts on “Our Troops in Afghanistan Need Mountain Warfare Training

  1. First off, great article. I only regret that I just found it. I was deployed last year (2009) to Afghanistan as a USMC ETT (Embedded Training Team) in RC-East. The team that replaced us was the last USMC team in that AO. The USMC has decided to redeploy all it’s advisors to Helmand with the 215th Corps vs the 201st. This leaves the Army alone to fight in the Mountains of RC East. Unfortunately, the Army has not resourced its mountain warfare training capability in the same way he Marine Corps has. The MWTC (Mountain Warfare Training Center) in California is the only training capability of it’s kind in DOD. It has the ability to train BOTH individuals and multiple battalions during Exercises Mountain Warrior and Javelin Thrust. Three years ago the MWTC became a JNTC (Joint National Training Capability). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find places to conduct both non-livefire and livefire mountain training in a CONUS training venue. The MWTC / Hawthorne training facility provides both and has done so since the 50s. Since the US Army gave Camp Hale to the Forest Service in the 70s, the only logical place for the Army to conduct Mountain Warfare training (a training venue that replicates eastern Afghanistan) for battalions and brigades is at the MWTC. In order to facilitate this, the US Army should immediately send a cadre of trainers (from or trained by the NWTC or AMWS) to the MWTC as a detachment and start training Battalions and Brigades headed to RC-East. The Marine Corps sends Detachments of trainers to Army Schools (Arty, Tanks, Motor T, Airborne…), it could work in the same manner for the Army. This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it. The Marine Corps, rightly so, is focused on winning in Helmand but possesses the training capability that the Army needs. The soldiers fighting in RC-East deserve the BEST mountain warfare training venue available in DOD. I don’t think the Army or Marine Corps will ever re-designate a unit as a “mountain” unit but we can still train units and “qualify” them as mountain capable as part of their pre-deployment training.

  2. man, the fact that the Mountain warfare training facility in in freakin california makes me worry for our troops, they need to set up shop in colorado or alaska, where it gets cold on these mountains. in california the mountain will still be hot, even in the winter. in colorado, our mountains have an 8 month winter, with almost constant snow. If you have a mountain unit, you need it cold weather trained as most mountains will have snow, and it will be cold…

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2 Thoughts on “Our Troops in Afghanistan Need Mountain Warfare Training

  1. First off, great article. I only regret that I just found it. I was deployed last year (2009) to Afghanistan as a USMC ETT (Embedded Training Team) in RC-East. The team that replaced us was the last USMC team in that AO. The USMC has decided to redeploy all it’s advisors to Helmand with the 215th Corps vs the 201st. This leaves the Army alone to fight in the Mountains of RC East. Unfortunately, the Army has not resourced its mountain warfare training capability in the same way he Marine Corps has. The MWTC (Mountain Warfare Training Center) in California is the only training capability of it’s kind in DOD. It has the ability to train BOTH individuals and multiple battalions during Exercises Mountain Warrior and Javelin Thrust. Three years ago the MWTC became a JNTC (Joint National Training Capability). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find places to conduct both non-livefire and livefire mountain training in a CONUS training venue. The MWTC / Hawthorne training facility provides both and has done so since the 50s. Since the US Army gave Camp Hale to the Forest Service in the 70s, the only logical place for the Army to conduct Mountain Warfare training (a training venue that replicates eastern Afghanistan) for battalions and brigades is at the MWTC. In order to facilitate this, the US Army should immediately send a cadre of trainers (from or trained by the NWTC or AMWS) to the MWTC as a detachment and start training Battalions and Brigades headed to RC-East. The Marine Corps sends Detachments of trainers to Army Schools (Arty, Tanks, Motor T, Airborne…), it could work in the same manner for the Army. This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it. The Marine Corps, rightly so, is focused on winning in Helmand but possesses the training capability that the Army needs. The soldiers fighting in RC-East deserve the BEST mountain warfare training venue available in DOD. I don’t think the Army or Marine Corps will ever re-designate a unit as a “mountain” unit but we can still train units and “qualify” them as mountain capable as part of their pre-deployment training.

  2. man, the fact that the Mountain warfare training facility in in freakin california makes me worry for our troops, they need to set up shop in colorado or alaska, where it gets cold on these mountains. in california the mountain will still be hot, even in the winter. in colorado, our mountains have an 8 month winter, with almost constant snow. If you have a mountain unit, you need it cold weather trained as most mountains will have snow, and it will be cold…

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