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At Alberta base, soldiers learn ropes through Afghan 'theatre' Add to ...

The only thing they can't fake here is the weather.

They may not be able to replicate the hot, merciless Afghanistan sun, but the Canadian military has managed to bring just everything else about that country to this sprawling base in rural Alberta.

"It's like a theatre," says Warrant Officer John Asselin, as he points to a small village that has been built using large metal shipping containers and cinder blocks. Soldiers and reservists dressed up as Afghans, including religious leaders, or mullahs, quietly mill around.

The "play" will run 24 hours a day for the next few weeks, with 1,200 soldiers bound for Kandahar this August being given a taste of and feel for the lethal dangers and challenges that lie ahead.

It is a multimillion-dollar training exercise, featuring firefights with Taliban insurgents, deadly roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenade attacks. Afghanistan has been a very difficult mission for Canadian soldiers, with 16 Canadians having been killed since 2002. With the casualties has come the erosion of public support.

This group of soldiers, all of whom are based in Ontario, is the first to have full use of this new facility, but the military is hoping to stage at least four massive training operations a year once the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre is completely up and running. Before arriving at the centre, located about 220 kilometres east of Edmonton, soldiers prepare for difficult missions on a much smaller scale at their own military bases.

Nicknamed the Box (short for the Sandbox), this area at Wainwright's military base was chosen partly because of its diverse terrain.

Military officials are confident that its rolling hills and sandy, bumpy country roads will be able to stand in for a number of the world's troubled hot spots, such as Haiti and Sudan.

"This is the way of the future," WO Asselin says.

"This is the way we are going to train from now on."

The combat engineer, who has been on military tours to Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq, is helping to organize this summer's training exercise.

"This is the place to make mistakes," WO Asselin says as he encounters a military checkpoint. He is currently playing the role of Jamal Alai, an Afghan who sells shoes at a local market. Canadian soldiers begin searching his vehicle, demanding identification. Two CF-18 fighter jets and a Griffin helicopter fly overhead.

WO Asselin only briefly abandons the role he's playing when he spots a dirt hole beside the soldiers' small tents.

"That's where some of the soldiers sleep at night. There is no Holiday Inn around here," he quips.

However, at the next checkpoint, the soldiers are more aggressive, and the actor in WO Asselin is more apparent. He becomes agitated and upset when the soldiers force him and three journalists out of his vehicle with their hands up and begin to rifle through his things.

"Don't trust anyone. You never know what is going to happen," says Private Mike Farrah, a 20-year-old soldier from Windsor, when asked what lessons he is learning during the intensive training exercise.

WO Asselin says the soldiers' day-to-day encounters with the actors, who are playing roles ranging from average Afghans to mullahs to warlords, will be invaluable once they arrive in Afghanistan.

"It will save them a lot of trouble. Trust is a very big thing for the Afghan culture," he says.

Mohammad Saleh, a 19-year-old reservist from Windsor, is playing the role of a mullah in one of the three Afghan villages that have been built. He says the soldiers are learning key lessons about the Afghan people and the Islamic religion.

"Some of the guys drove over graves the other day. They even killed a mullah. It's good they are doing that here. You just can't do that," he says, after holding the village's morning call to prayer.

Back at the main base, military officials can track the soldiers' progress using verbal reports from commanding officers and small transmitters that each soldier and vehicle carries.

The devices record their movements and even the effects of attacks, such as a simulated bomb blast.

"This place is the final check in the box before these guys head overseas," says Lieutenant-Colonel Marty Frank, the training centre's chief of staff.

"We want their worst day in Afghanistan to first happen in Wainwright, Alta. We don't want them to come across any surprises. We want them to know what to do."

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