CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – Afghan guards armed with AK-47s keep watch just outside as a village elder sits in a room with no electricity and tells a U.S. Marine:
“The Taliban are recruiting young unemployed men to plant IEDs and fight the American military.”
Cpl. Adam King sits down, sips some tea and listens attentively. What he says and what he hears could save the lives of his Marines.
This is the scene in Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, where the 2nd Battalion 8th Marines — known as the 2/8 — have built a simulated Afghan village to prepare American troops for what they will face half a world away.
The 2/8 Marines will be traveling this summer, but they'll be going to a decidedly non-vacation spot: Afghanistan, where Taliban violence is high and the presence of any authority is low.
Despite nearly eight years of American military presence, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are increasingly exerting their influence in Afghanistan — especially along the nation's border with Pakistan. There is a demand for more American troops, and they, in turn, see a demand for a change in strategy and training.
In Camp Lejeune, the new watchword is Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework (TCAF), military bureaucratese for rethinking the fight in Afghanistan.
Politely, through a Pashto-speaking interpreter, Cpl. King, a 23-year-old Michigan native, asks a precise series of questions formulated to produce data that will help discern patterns throughout Afghanistan, and identify the particularities of a specific location.
The answers the role-playing Afghan natives provide serve as a point of comparison — a different approach to intelligence gathering that resembles a sociological experiment more than a counter-insurgency tactic.
After the encounter, observers rate King's performance.
“They told me I should have gotten numbers and specifics when the elder mentioned key words like ‘lots of people,’” King told FOXNews.com during a short break in the 16-hour training exercise.
It's a small mistake — the kind the Marines can afford to make in Camp Lejeune, but the kind that could literally be life-or-death in Afghanistan.
Last year, more than a dozen Marines were killed in the areas where King and his fellow Marines will likely be deployed. While the 2/8 Marines are no strangers to war zones — many have served in Al Anbar, Iraq — there’s a growing sense among these Marines that Afghanistan will be a different fight, and they will have to adapt.
“I grew up preparing to fight the Soviets,” Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, commander of the 2/8 Marines, told FOXNews.com.
“We’re not doing stuff out there to make us feel better,” he said, reflecting on mistakes learned during multiple overseas tours.
“Before, we dug wells, built schools, stuff that we thought was important to us, but this (TCAF) is about what the Afghans know is important, and what Afghans know is of enormous value.”
The historic role of the 2/8 Marines has been to “Locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.” But in Afghanistan, in an effort to avoid costly mistakes, the Marine Corps has emphasized training that focuses largely on cultural issues.
A private defense contractor, Defense Training Systems (DTS), provides Afghan role-players and Afghan experts for the program.
“It’s a different type of training,” DTS representative Read Omohundro said as Afghan experts gave Marines a list of cultural Do’s and Don’ts:
— Do Shake hands firmly.
— Do adapt to Afghan customs of personal space.
— Do Not use the left hand when communicating.
— Do Not show the soles of boots.
— Do Not speak to friendly Afghans while wearing sunglasses.
— Do Not force an Afghan's head to the ground
And most importantly …
— Do Not point, smile, gesture or speak to female Afghans.
“We want the Marines to be culturally prepared,” Omohundro said, “but if the training requires a riot, firefight or explosions, I can give them that too.”
“The Taliban know who Marines are,” said infantry Sgt. Eric Beaverson, a native of Pennsylvania. During his last tour in Afghanistan, the Taliban nicknamed him and his fellow Marines “Deathwalkers” — “because we stay and fight,” he said.
But Afghans, too, have a reputation for staying and fighting that goes back for generations, so no one is expecting the pending tour to be easy.
“I can put an unmanned aerial vehicle in the air that can spot the enemy and trace his movements, but no matter how sophisticated the technology gets, a UAV still won’t tell me what the Afghans are thinking.” Cabaniss said.
Americans will have to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, and that means their strategy must go beyond bullets.
“We’ve gotten a lot smarter Cabaniss said.
“But don’t get me wrong; my Marines are more than ready to go head to head with the Taliban in any fight.”