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Fighting a high-tech war with a low-tech mule

US Marines and soldiers are training to fight in Afghanistan, where mules and donkeys can haul supplies and weapons to places where Humvees and helicopters can't easily go.

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Animal Packing instructor Sgt. John Freeseha, right, from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California.,trains US Marine infantry how to tie a knot in a rope to securer the packing mules the students will use in Afghanistan.

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor

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Tucked at the base of a small mountain in the eastern Sierras is a makeshift paddock where a handful of US Marine Corps instructors reach deep into the history of warfare to give their charges a critical skill when they deploy to Afghanistan: how to pack a mule.

It is a peculiar course to teach in a military that is widely considered the best-trained, most capable, and highest-tech in the world.

But as the US girds to deploy more than 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, the military is having to prepare for a decidedly different kind of fight from the one in Iraq.

The American military experience during the past several years has been so defined by the Iraq war that many combat-hardened troops have never deployed to Afghanistan. The shift requires personnel from grunts to generals to tap into unique forms of know-how and to relearn the counterinsurgency lessons of Iraq in a new context.

The differences between Iraq and Afghanistan are striking: Afghanistan offers more complex linguistic and cultural challenges, a more sophisticated and perhaps determined enemy, and a rugged mountain terrain that is among the most forbidding and remote landscapes anywhere in the world.

Afghanistan's rural insurgency is far removed from the urban-based fighters in Iraq. The Taliban in Afghanistan tend to operate in larger groups than the terrorists who planted roadside bombs to attack American forces in Iraq.

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