Men carrying rifles patrol the noisy bazaar, weaving among vendors selling everything from clothing to used tires.
Women wearing headscarves approach passers-by, aggressively hawking DVDs and sewing machines.
"The villagers are desperate!" cried one woman, holding up a sewing machine she was trying to sell. They have "no food, no clothes, no electricity."
Simply saying no and walking away did not always end the assault.
Nearby, pale-yellow plastered buildings are adorned with Afghan flags and photos of President Hamid Karzai.
Some walls are strewn with anti-American graffiti, cars are riddled with bullet holes.
This scene is repeated every day in just about every part of Afghanistan.
It just happens that this particular version is being played out on a manufactured set in the middle of Indiana.
Amid forests and farmland in this heartland community lies the Indiana National Guard's Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.
The civilian "surge" in Afghanistan is sending American educators, lawyers, agricultural specialists, engineers and others to help rebuild the country.
And the Muscatatuck center is bracing them for their trip.
In October, U.S. Embassy officials in Kabul began requiring the weeklong immersion for all field and field-support personnel. The program is designed to shave weeks off the usual learning curve for new arrivals in Afghanistan.
Civilian trainees practice riding in convoys and helicopters with military personnel and train with Afghans who worked in their home countries as officials or diplomats.
The Afghans play the roles of provincial council members, tribal leaders, law enforcement officers and others whom civilians will encounter.
"It kind of gives [trainees] the sights and sounds and smells and feel of what they're going to do when they touch the ground," said Indiana National Guard Brig. Gen. Clif Tooley Jr., who oversees operations at Muscatatuck.
The training also can help eliminate the cultural "faux pas" that inhibit American soldiers from building rapport with and inspiring confidence in the Afghans, said Muqtedar Khan, director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware.
"One of the reasons the U.S. has had a problem in Iraq and Afghanistan is that American troops do not really respect the local culture and make unnecessary enemies with people who are potential allies," Khan said. "... Just changing dialogue without changing policies does not mean it will be successful but they might be able to develop individual friendships and that can be a conduit to developing human intelligence."
Bound for Helmand
Most of the 36 trainees in the September class were men. One, foreign service officer Jason Jeffreys of Brandon, Miss., was bound for Helmand, a southern province where U.S. Marines began a major offensive against insurgents in July. When Jeffreys gets to Afghanistan, he might find himself doing anything from helping to plan a village well, to identifying political parties that need support fighting the Taliban.
Jeffreys, 30, served on a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq and worked on border security issues in Pakistan, but until taking the course, he didn't know he shouldn't wear sunglasses when speaking face-to-face with an Afghan.
"They feel security in seeing one's eyes, and sunglasses make Afghans feel that the speaker might have something to hide," he wrote in an e-mail.
Using specialists in agriculture, education, politics, engineering and other fields to help persuade Afghans to support their own government over the Taliban was a key element of the counterinsurgency strategy that President Barack Obama announced for Afghanistan in March. His fiscal 2010 budget calls for $4 billion for civilian programs and operations.
Even as Obama re-evaluates his war strategy, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said any approach that lacks a strong civilian component is "doomed."
Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, a member of the committee, said civilians will help Afghans build a government, security forces and an infrastructure they can sustain on their own.
"You can't do a counterinsurgency strategy unless you have civilians to do the 'build' portion of the strategy," said Kaufman, who has traveled twice this year to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
He and Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., co-sponsored legislation in May requiring the State Department, consulting with the Pentagon, to make sure civilians serving in Afghanistan receive training that focuses on counterinsurgency.
The course in Butlerville was a response to that legislation and to requests from Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"This is getting people to work together so they understand what they're going to face over there," said Kaufman, who toured Camp Muscatatuck last week.
The Obama administration had planned to send hundreds more civilians to Afghanistan by March 2010, but then decided that deadline was too far away. The new goal is to boost the number of positions from 562 to 974 by Dec. 31, said Derek Hogan, a senior adviser to Holbrooke.
Many of those civilians will require training at Muscatatuck.
Civilians assigned to Afghanistan need to function well within a foreign culture and understand how to be a mentor, said Frank DiGiovanni, deputy director of Readiness and Training Policy at Defense Secretary Robert Gates' office.
Like a movie studio
Camp Muscatatuck was converted from a mental health center in 2004. From a helicopter hovering above, its 70 buildings resemble a college campus. Along with the Middle Eastern market, there are four Afghan-style farms, power and sewage plants, and two buildings resembling an Afghan prison. Kaufman said it reminded him of Universal Studios.
The handbook issued to trainees includes a page on military ranks and dos and don'ts, including, "Don't salute," and "Don't ever carry a weapon -- you are a civilian noncombatant."
"They need to understand how the military operates and what that mind-set is, so they're not only comfortable but they're safe," said Army Reserve Maj. Rory Aylward, who served as a civil affairs officer on a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan.
The training exercises with role players focus on complex issues -- fraud allegations in the Afghan elections, poorly trained judges, corruption within Afghan security forces, a lack of essential services.
In one exercise -- an introductory meeting with a "provincial governor" -- trainees took off their flak jackets and helmets and gathered around a table. They bowed their heads as a mullah began the meeting with a prayer. Pastries and tea were served.
A former Afghan diplomat playing the role of provincial governor raised a sensitive issue: civilian casualties. Jeffreys, speaking through an interpreter, was trying to ease the "governor's" concerns when the man's cell phone rang.
The trainer took the call, forcing Jeffreys to practice pausing and picking up where he left off -- without getting rattled.
Jeffreys was ready. He had learned during his time in Iraq and Pakistan that local officials will exert their authority over a meeting by having an aide walk in or call them on cell phones.
"Clearly, better coordination is key," Jeffreys continued after the trainer put down his phone. "Our team will go back and talk to the military."
Vowell, the State Department employee, said his experience in the Middle East taught him the importance of building relationships with local officials. But his meeting with the trainer playing the role of provincial governor also taught him that Afghans place great importance on the personal touch.
He said that when he compared the mountains and rivers in Kunar Province to his grandparents' home in southeastern Kentucky, "the guy lit up."