It's 8 a.m. on a recent day at Forward Operating Base Nolay, a small Marine outpost in Taliban-infested Sangin District of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. The Marines 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.
"We can sit here and we can have a cup of coffee when there's booms going on, we're not concerned about it," says Lt. Col. Jonathan Loney.
Loney is the commander of a team that's advising the 2nd Brigade of the Afghan army's 215 Corps in Helmand, and he is fully aware how odd it seems that the Marines are ignoring fighting that often takes place within a mile of their base, situated as it is in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
A few years ago, the U.S. sent the Marines into Helmand to battle the Taliban. After several bloody campaigns, they were able to push the militants out of the larger population centers, but they are still deeply entrenched in places like Sangin.
A lot of Marines died in the area — but not anymore. It's no longer the Marines' fight – Afghan forces are now in the lead and the Marines and other NATO forces in Helmand are trying to train the Afghan army to stand on its own.
"Instead of us being in a combat role, we're on the sidelines," Loney says. "It's kind of equivalent to an assistant coach."
The Marines rarely leave the perimeter of the joint Afghan-U.S. base in Sangin.
But the Afghan forces are fighting every day. 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.
"My boys want to go and grab their guns every day and go out there," says Loney, but that would undermine the progress of the Afghan forces.
Creating Foundation For A Sustainable Army
The Marines say the Afghans have to take care of things on their own. Instead, the Americans are focused on training and advising the Afghans on many of the noncombat aspects of being a functional army — things like intelligence, operations and logistics.
These are the 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.
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. He's asking students to identify components of the diesel engine — the air filter, the dipstick and the starter.
"They have a lot of generator problems out here," says Schamber. "They don't know how to maintain them."
The Afghan army can't survive without electricity, so it needs soldiers who know their way around a generator.
Schamber says this is the kind of capability the Afghans need for the long haul. He says that this is what makes a military compound functional.
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 the army is struggling to build logistics and combat support capacities.
"We are trying to work on it day and night because we know the Americans are leaving. We are trying to be independent," says Ziulrahman, a young Afghan army soldier who's learning how to fix generators.
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 in addition to those who are killed, they are losing about 6,000 a year; most simply don't return from leave.
"The ANA is still raw, it's not cooked. We need lots of things," says Col. Abdul Hai Nashat, the executive officer for the 2nd Brigade of the 215 Corps. 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.
"Right now, we ask our mentors everything: for training, for ammunition, for weapons, for vehicle parts," he says.
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 2014.
Beyond Basic Training
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.
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 Warrior Training leaves off. Most Afghan troops go straight from BWT to the field to fight. Some eventually rotate through additional training, but not all.
Gunnery Sgt. Donald Reynolds is overseeing a training exercise involving about 20 Afghan soldiers.
"What you're seeing out here right now is the small unit tactics training," says Reynolds. "Right now they are learning some of the finer skills of patrolling and dealing with enemy fire while they are out on a patrol."
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. They are not all spaced out properly, and some are not holding their rifles correctly.
Reynolds says that only about 30 percent of the Afghans demonstrate weapons proficiency when they arrive at this training course.
He points out how they approach this training scenario: They are all lined up, aiming at the target.
"They feel like, the more guys I have lying down shooting is the more firepower I have, and the more of us that stand up and run at the guy is the safer we feel," Reynolds says. "We're trying to break them of this habit and get them to do two-man rushes" on the target shooting at them.
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.
Need For Training The Trainers
One teacher is Staff Sgt. Barad Momad, who 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.
"Some students do well, but many have trouble with the training and really don't want to learn," says Momad.
He says they struggle with things like map reading and repairing their weapons.
"We are aiming to address quite basic needs and deficiencies here," says British Wing Commander James Penelhum, head of the Regional Corps Battle School adviser team.
The team is in the process of setting up a school that is seen as a possible long-run solution. The aim of the school is to take graduates of the Afghan Army Basic Warrior Training and immediately put them into next-level training. There will be 32 different courses, everything from literacy to first aid to tactical training.
"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 the Afghans can do it once we lift off," he says.
That's why Penelhum says the critical element of the battle school is producing Afghan trainers. The goal is to have 200 qualified Afghan instructors by the end of next year when the NATO mission ends.
In the coming weeks, the school will start its first rotation of courses with 970 students. Penelhum says that if the pilot program is successful, NATO will develop corps battle schools in other regions of the country.
In the meantime, with the Afghans doing the fighting, the Marines in Sangin are getting to spend more time lifting weights and catching up on episodes of Breaking Bad while the Afghans do the fighting.