KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – With tensions in the Middle East rising over Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the United States and NATO began their largest annual joint-exercise this week, Operation Enduring Freedom.
The exercise is a 365-day event conducted annually since 2001 on Joint Base Afghanistan and involves over 100,000 military personnel from 50 countries as diverse as Albania and Texas, working with another 400,000 host nation forces.
“In an uncertain world, we believe that Enduring Freedom shows that the NATO alliance is still a relevant force,” said International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman Col. Nick Page.
Enduring Freedom features extremely realistic training in small unit warfare, counterinsurgency, aid distribution, government relations, and improvised explosive device handling. The exercise will also eventually feature the successful transition of security operations from ISAF to local forces from the fictional country of GIROA.
While people were amazed at the ultra-realistic training environment, some participants have complained that the exercise was poorly designed.
"Why do we have to keep holding Enduring Freedom in a landlocked country?" complained 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. John Miller. "I've got a Carrier Strike Group with enough firepower to take on God, but they never get to do anything! And all those [Rules of Engagement], where we can't drop a bomb without seven generals giving us permission. I miss the days when we could just blow the shit out of Vieques."
Some found the exercise vague and confusing.
“This is my third time doing Enduring Freedom,” said Sergeant Vince Wegner, “and I’m still unclear what my objective is. Am I supposed to be building mosques and wells, fighting the enemy, removing corrupt officials, or building those same corrupt officials up?”
Col. Page responded, “There is no particular objective associated with Enduring Freedom. We originally tried developing this elaborate backstory involving a massive terrorist attack on the United States, but too many commanders were questioning how that tied in with passing out money to illiterate farmers.”
Some independent defense analysts disagreed, saying Enduring Freedom was clearly designed to send a message to China.
"Why else would the U.S. be operating in the middle of Central Asia, hundreds of miles from anywhere important?" asked Oliver Schirmer, from the Institute for the Study of War.
"No," he continued, "Washington is clearly trying to send a message to Beijing, and that message is: if you so much as twitch at Japan, we will invade your country, topple your government, recreate it using most of the same people, then mull around for a decade while passing out kickbacks until we run out of money and forget why we're even there."
Despite the controversy, many service members are just happy for the training.
“We’ve done Enduring Freedom so many times it’s become a nice refresher for us before we deploy to somewhere important, like Australia or Africa,” said Marine Lt. Col. Morris Siegel.
Col. Page added that after eleven years, the United States and its allies were working to keep Enduring Freedom fresh and relevant.
"In a way we're a victim of our own success because now everyone wants to show off their new hardware in Enduring Freedom. Over the years we've had to find missions for tank battalions, bomber squadrons, legions of support personnel, things we never would have thought of in 2001 when it was just a dozen guys on horses."
"Last year we got so desperate we started throwing in random scenarios where host nation forces would open fire on friendly forces for no reason," Page said.
Joint Base Afghanistan is a 650,000 km2 live-fire range in Central Asia and the largest of its kind in the world. Originally built by the Russians in 1979 over an abandoned British hunting preserve, it was briefly leased by the Pakistani military until acquired by the United States and NATO in 2001 for the sole purpose of combat training.