Now the once-bustling Camp Dwyer, a satellite base a 20-minute flight south from the larger Camp Leatherneck, has shrunk from some 5,000 Marines and support staff to roughly 800. About 60 of those Marines are living in a smaller base, next to the Afghan National Army's 1st Brigade, 215th Corps headquarters.
The last time Marines there went on joint patrols with the Afghans was in the fall, said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Philip Treglia, who leads the security force adviser team.
"We're shrinking from 60 to 24 advisers," this spring, Treglia said. "This summer I'm recommending we go down to five," he added. "The Afghans just aren't going to need us."
Treglia's Afghan counterpart, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Sujai, bolstered that prediction only weeks earlier by conducting a four-day, 650-man army and police operation to clear insurgents and opium-producing poppy fields out of Trek Nawa, a known Taliban safe haven.
He only told the Americans about the operation when it was done.
"It was a test," Sujai said. "I wanted to prove we could do it alone."
Treglia described another incident, this one watched by the Americans on aerial surveillance.
About 80 Taliban fighters approached the town of Marjah from the north, stopping at a mosque to let the locals know they were coming back to take over.
By the time they'd reached a second mosque, residents had called the Afghan security forces — army, police and the militia-like local police, who happened to all be interrelated by marriage. Some of them were even former Taliban, Treglia said. A 400-man force headed north and intercepted the would-be invaders.
The Americans counted at least 30 bodies left on the battlefield, all Taliban, according to Sujai. The rest fled.
Treglia said sometimes the Afghans don't want the Americans there, because they don't want them watching, such as when the police shake down local farmers for bribes, in return for burning only part, instead of all, of their poppy crops.
The police then demand the farmers turn in the Taliban when they visit to collect the drugs, thus both lining their pockets and bumping up their arrest record, Treglia explained.
"We used to try to stop it. Now, we let the Afghan general know — and he knows — and it's up to them to sort it out," the American said.
In some cases, the Americans are forcing the Afghans to take charge before they want to, hoping to wean the Afghans of support that soon won't be available as the U.S. forces shrink in southern Afghanistan in the coming months.
If the Afghans are wounded on an operation, the Marines get them to describe the injuries and only send a U.S. aerial medevac crew if the wounds are life-threatening, explained U.S. Marine Maj. Christopher Bourbeau, deputy commander of the mission.
Bourbeau traded flying combat helicopters over southern Afghanistan to join the adviser team and has watched the Afghans develop over a four-year period of rotations through the area.
Bourbeau has enlisted Marine medics and the doctors and nurses at the U.S. medical facility at neighboring Camp Dwyer to teach the Afghans how to transport their less severely wounded troops by road. The troops got a grim reminder to pay closer attention when they were hit a few months ago, however, and failed to tie tourniquets on the wounded men.
"They lost guys because no one did that simple thing," Bourbeau.
He launched a brigade-wide refresher course after the losses and demonstrated the results by staging an impromptu pop quiz of one of the Afghan bomb technicians as he walked around the Afghan base. He tossed a tourniquet at the man, said, "Go," and the Afghan had tied a tourniquet on the American officer's leg in just over 30 seconds.
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