Outside one end of a building, Sgt. Matthew Nickelsen, a Marine from Dana Point, Calif., was teaching Afghan soldiers how to train other Afghans to operate the iconic U.S. M2 .50-caliber machine gun. A hundred yards away, other Marine and U.S. civilians were teaching another group how to use 60 mm mortars, a new addition to the Afghan arsenal that the NATO-led coalition hopes will make up for the Afghans lack of air support. The Afghans under training were expected take their skills back to their companies to instruct others.
The Marine advisers were working out of a military training center that the coalition wants to turn into a regional school to improve soldiers skills after theyve gone through basic training and been in the ranks for a while.
Its hoped that the school will become a model thats replicated across the country, said the adviser groups commander and the lone member of the British army assigned here, Maj. Joseph Power.
The Afghans are good at fighting and can be great, with the proper equipment and training, he said. But the attrition via desertion and casualties is staggering, and its crucial for the long-term health of the army that it shift to a modern cycle of fighting, leaving and then getting additional training, rather than just having basic training and then being permanently on duty.
"They dont think about training a sustainable force, partly because they just dont look at it that way, and partly because weve always been there to help keep them going," he said.
It took the United States about three decades to develop a similar approach, and the Afghans have only a couple of years.
The changes are particularly noticeable in the southern half of Helmand, where the Marines once had more than 200 bases. Now theyre clustered in about half a dozen larger bases mainly strung along a 100-mile stretch of the Helmand River.
As of early last week, not a single Marine had been killed or wounded in action in the southern half of Helmand this year, said Lt. Col. Carl E. Cooper Jr. of Ruston, La., the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. The 3/9 is the lone remaining U.S. infantry battalion in the southern part of the province.
"The security here is provided in whole by the Afghans," Cooper said. "Our operations are to enable them in a few areas, but frankly it has become a rarity to be asked to support them in an operation."
Maxim magazine once put Camp Dwyer, the main Marine base in southern Helmand, on a list of the five most dangerous places in Afghanistan. Now its among the calmest. The base is so large it has a bus system to move Marines from their living quarters to work, chow and recreation. Its surrounded by desert, and attacks are rare.
Having trained to fight and fight aggressively, many of the younger Marines on their first tour of duty are bored.
"I dont think the word is exactly useless, but theres not much more we can do here," said Lance Cpl. Christian Cappucci, 20, of Townsend, Mass. "Its unfortunate that theres no combat. I wish I had seen it earlier."
His unit is tasked with security for Dwyer, which means he at least gets to go outside the base for patrols. They stick so close, though, theres not much chance of action. Basically they just patrol the desert just outside the base, partnering with Afghan soldiers who stop passing cars on the two desert routes around the base.