STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A few years ago, the United States sent the Marines to battle the Taliban in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. After several bloody campaigns, the troops largely pushed the militants into the hinterlands, where they remain. The Marines are still in Helmand, but it is no longer their fight for that province. Afghan forces are now in the lead and the Marines and other NATO forces in Helmand are training the Afghan army to, hopefully, stand on its own. NPR's Sean Carberry reports.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: It's 8:00 a.m. at Forward Operating Base Nolay, a small Marine outpost in Taliban-infested Sangin District of Helmand. The Marines here are in the process of caffeinating and preparing for the day. Suddenly explosions and gunfire ring out. The Marines don't run for their weapons, or bunkers for that matter. They don't even flinch.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL JONATHAN LONEY: We can sit here and we can have a cup of coffee when there's booms going on, we're not concerned about it.
CARBERRY: That's Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Loney and he is fully aware how odd it seems that the Marines are ignoring fighting that's often taking place within a mile of their base, a base situated in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
LONEY: A lot of bloody battles have taken place in this area from Sangin on north.
CARBERRY: And a lot of Marines died here, but they aren't dying anymore. Loney is the commander of a team that's advising the second brigade of the Afghan Army's 215 corps in Helmand.
LONEY: Instead of us, you know, being in a combat role, we're on the sidelines. It's kind of equivalent to an assistant coach.
CARBERRY: Afghan forces are fighting here every day now. The Taliban and other militants move around the lush vegetation along the Helmand River. They hide among the civilian population, firing on the Afghan outposts and attacking their patrols.
LONEY: My boys, you know, want to go and grab their guns every day and go out there.
CARBERRY: But Loney says that would undermine the progress of the Afghan forces. The Marines say the Afghans have to take care of things on their own. Instead, the Americans here are focused on training and advising the Afghans on many of the noncombat aspects of being a functional army.
LONEY: Intelligence, operations, logistics.
CARBERRY: Capabilities that will make the Afghan army a sustainable institution that can survive when international forces leave. On one August morning, we head out the gate to the Afghan side of the base, which is the former compound of a drug lord. Sangin is also poppy country, one of the reasons the Taliban and smugglers are entrenched here.
SERGEANT RANDALL SCHAMBER: Can someone remove the air filter?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)
CARBERRY: Randall Schamber, an army sergeant attached to the Marines here, is teaching about a dozen Afghan army soldiers and civilians how to repair electrical generators.
SCHAMBER: They have a lot of generator problems out here. They don't know how to maintain them.
CARBERRY: The Afghan army can't survive without electricity, so they need soldiers who know their way around a generator.
SCHAMBER: This is the long haul. This is the stuff in the states that makes an actual post, a facility or a compound.
CARBERRY: And this is the kind of stuff that's most challenging to the Afghan forces. The Afghan army is a young institution and the corps in Helmand is only a few years old. Illiteracy rates are sky high, and they're struggling to build logistics and combat support capabilities.
ZIULRAHMAN: (Speaking foreign language)
CARBERRY: Ziulrahman is a young Afghan army soldier who's learning how to fix generators.
ZIULRAHMAN: (Through interpreter) We are trying to work on it day and night because we know that the Americans are leaving. We are trying to be independent.
CARBERRY: Though he admits that he's motivated as much by learning a skill so he can leave the army in a year or two and get a job. That's one of the challenges with the Afghan National Army, or ANA - keeping trained soldiers. The 215 Corps has about 17,000 soldiers, but they're losing about 6,000 a year, most of whom simply don't return from leave.
COLONEL ABDUL HAI NASHAT: The ANA is still raw, it's not cooked. We need lots of things.
CARBERRY: Colonel Abdul Hai Nashat is the executive officer for the 2nd Brigade. Sitting in his office in the drug lord's former house here, he says the ANA is making strides, but it will take years to be self-sustaining.
NASHAT: Right now we ask our mentors everything: for training, for ammunition, for weapons, for vehicle parts.
CARBERRY: The Marine mentors are doing everything they can to say no and wean the Afghans, but no one is under any illusion that the ANA will be self-sustaining by the time the NATO mission ends in December of 2014. And for all the focus on training the Afghans in combat support functions, the fact is, Afghan soldiers still need a lot of combat training as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAINING CAMP)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get that weapon on your shoulder.
CARBERRY: Here at Camp Leatherneck in southern Helmand, U.S. and British forces conduct a variety of training programs designed to pick up where the Afghan army's eight-week basic training leaves off.
GUNNERY SERGEANT DONALD REYNOLDS: My name is Gunnery Sergeant Donald Reynolds from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What you're seeing out here right now is a small unit tactics training. Right now they're learning some of the finer skills of patrolling and dealing with enemy fire while they're out on a patrol.
CARBERRY: The soldiers are lined up to advance on a target. An instructor yells out that they are being fired on, and the troops hit the ground. Reynolds says that only about 30 percent of the Afghans demonstrate weapons proficiency when they arrive at this training course.
REYNOLDS: They feel like the more guys I have lying down right now shooting is the more firepower I have, and the more of us that stand up and run at the guy, the safer we feel. We're trying to break them of this habit right now and get them into two-man rushes.
CARBERRY: Reynolds says their current approach presents a bigger target to the enemy and is part of the reason Afghan forces suffer such high casualties, far more than NATO troops did when they were doing the bulk of the fighting. He stands watching the exercise and points out that Afghans are doing more and more of the instructing here.
One teacher is Staff Sergeant Barad Momad. He has been a mortar instructor for a year and half. He gives directions to a couple of soldiers as they aim and drop a dummy round down a mortar tube.
STAFF SERGEANT BARAD MOMAD: Some students do well, but many have trouble with the training and really don't want to learn.
CARBERRY: He says they struggle with things like map reading and repairing their weapons.
WING COMMANDER JAMES PENELHUM: We are aiming to sort of address quite basic needs and deficiencies here.
CARBERRY: Wing Commander James Penelhum is head of the Regional Corps Battle School adviser team. The team is in the process of standing up a school that is seen as a possible long-run solution. Their goal is to have 200 qualified Afghan instructors by the end of next year when the NATO mission ends. They'll be doing everything from literacy to first aid to tactical training.
PENELHUM: The coalition has been training the soldiers here for quite a few years, but what it hasn't necessarily been doing is actually making it sustainable so that the Afghans can do it once we lift off.
CARBERRY: He says that if this pilot program is successful, NATO will develop them in other regions of the country. In the meantime, the Marines in Sangin spend more time lifting weights, catching up on episodes of "Breaking Bad," and monitoring their radios while the Afghans do the fighting.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: RCC post is now shooting with their 50.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Solid.
CARBERRY: Sean Carberry, NPR News.