CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan -- One statistic about the war in Afghanistan has stood out for weeks: the single U.S. Marine killed so far in 2013.
For years, the Marines have fought and died in Helmand, a hot, dusty province in Afghanistans south thats earned a bloody place in corps lore, right beside the likes of Anbar province in Iraq. Its been by far the deadliest province for the U.S-led coalition, where more than 900 international soldiers have been killed, including more than 350 Marines.
But the days of heavy combat and casualties in Helmand are over, at least for conventional American troops. And soon that might be true across Afghanistan. In the next few weeks, Afghan security forces are expected to reach one of the biggest milestones of the 11-year-old war: Theyll officially take the lead in the last remaining pockets of the country where they havent already.
The changes in Helmand are the most graphic example of what that means.
Marines are no longer walking the harrowing foot patrols that once were common in much of the province. Instead, they mainly work on large bases, teaching and mentoring Afghan security forces, and simply packing up to leave.
Some Marines are still exposed to risk, including those who run supply convoys and help clear the roads of bombs, and at least 30 have been wounded this year in the northern part of Helmand. But its the Afghan army and police that are doing the real fighting in the province and taking the bulk of the casualties.
"I cant think of a scenario where were out there right with them anymore," said Brig. Gen. George W. Smith, the deputy commander for the NATO regional command in Helmand who oversees the coalitions work training and advising the Afghan army and police.
Mentoring or assistance on a combat operation, he said, is now done "one terrain feature" behind the Afghans, meaning the Marines hang back, observing, and ready with assistance such as a medevac helicopter if an Afghan soldier or police officer suffers a wound serious enough to put life or limb at risk.
None of this means the fighting has stopped or even slowed. Instead, the Afghans are now taking nearly all the casualties. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense declined to provide casualty figures for Helmand, but U.S. officers there said they thought the climb in Afghan losses roughly corresponded with the decline in coalition casualties.
In Helmand, the shift in whos doing the fighting marks a huge change since the peak of fighting two and three years ago.
Once, there were more than 21,000 Marines in Helmand spread across nearly 300 bases, some of them outposts with fewer than half a dozen men. There were constant firefights, sometimes several a day. Now there are just more than 8,000 Marines, and theyre clustered mainly on a handful of large bases, behind elaborate layers of security.
Behind those walls, some Marines are frantically inventorying and packing up trucks and equipment to ship home while others are advising Afghans on advanced skills: how to train other troops, render medical assistance, plan operations and improve the Afghans notoriously unreliable supply chain.
No longer are the lessons taught out on patrol.
Typical was a recent day at Camp Shorabak _ the Afghan base adjacent to the Marines giant Camp Leatherneck _ which is home to the Afghan National Armys 215th Corps.