Where the Afghan war is fought hardest

There isn't much left of this once-violent town center that the U.S. Marines recently pacified — a couple of dusty roads, closed shops with bare mud brick stalls, small boys herding goats through a jigsaw puzzle of ruined houses and dry irrigation canals.

Just outside the town, fields of poppy flourish, and fleets of turbaned Taliban throttle gutty motorcycles.

Nawzad's town center is quiet, but its desert outskirts are still contested. Separate roadside bomb attacks wrecked three armored U.S. Marine personnel carriers in one day on one road — the Marines were unharmed, but such incidents make movement and commerce in the district risky.

"They told us, you can go if you want, but if you die, don't blame us because we told you the Taliban hid bombs in the road," recounted a man who identified himself as Masoud, one of the few merchants left in Nawzad's once-bustling bazaar.

The southwest province of Helmand, where Nawzad sits, is where the Afghan war is being fought the hardest. In Nawzad alone, the population has gone down from more than 87,000 in 2004 to less than 10,000, according to Afghan government figures and U.S. estimates.

Helmand, a majority Pashtun province, is both a homeland and a thoroughfare for the insurgency, and houses its economic base, opium. Another sign of Helmand's strategic importance: More NATO service members, upwards of 700, have died in this province than any other.

With so much at stake, Helmand is caught between the competing war strategies of the coalition and the Taliban.

According to a preliminary draft of The Helmand Plan obtained by the AP, a joint coalition and Afghan guide for the next three years, the alliance wants to follow an inkblot approach by securing population centers — especially along the fertile Helmand River Valley — and then spreading outward.

Infrastructure development would follow, along with international mentors for nascent Afghan governmental institutions, in the hope that they can then stand on their own. Licit agriculture would blossom, according to the plan, and the Taliban's poppy industry would wilt under government eradication programs.

Speed is also part of NATO's strategy. Much of the coalition's limited progress in Helmand has been achieved during an 18-month military surge that increased NATO forces in the province by 11,000 troops to 30,000. But some troops will likely leave the province this summer, the beginning of President Barack Obama's promised withdrawal of all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014. By then the country is expected to transition from NATO to Afghan control.

The insurgency also has a plan: resist and delay. And unlike NATO, the Taliban intend to be here long after 2014.

While the Taliban has ceded ground inside cities like Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, it also guards opium fields and ambushes convoys in suburbs and hinterlands. It stymies provincial communication networks by forcing phone companies to shut down cellular service for most of the day. And it keeps Helmandis dependent on the poppy trade — and the insurgency — by seeding insecurity and retarding development.

Like Nawzad, the northern town of Kajaki, home of a 33-megawatt two-turbine hydroelectric dam, is an archipelago of relative security surrounded by kill zones.

"You go up to the dam, you'll be fine because you have Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, who have secured the dam," said U.S. Marine Col. Norman Cooling, the operations chief for Regional Command Southwest, in charge of security of Helmand and Nimroz to the west. "But if you go patrolling outside the dam, you're going to get shot at."

NATO officials say the dam is essential to modernize of Afghanistan's agriculture. It would electrify large swaths of Helmand and Kandahar, making it possible to refrigerate goods and increase their shelf life on their way to markets. (Opium keeps for months without refrigeration.)

In 2008, a 100-vehicle convoy and thousands of British troops were required to haul a third turbine and other equipment to Kajaki. Once installed, the third generator would increase the dam's output to more than 50 megawatts and provide more consistent electricity to Helmand and much of neighboring Kandahar province.

But the Taliban and affiliated tribes are resisting attempts to clear supply routes or install upgraded power lines between Kajaki and other towns along the Helmand River Valley. One of the most infamous towns along the way to Kajaki is Sangin, a Taliban redoubt where one-third of all British losses in the Afghan war have taken place. Firefights still break out there daily.

Nearly three years after arriving at the dam, the third generator has still not been installed and the grid has not been upgraded.

But after 10 years of war, there are also fragile signs of progress in Helmand.

Governance advisers have been deployed to 10 out of Helmand's 14 districts. District elections were held this year in Marjah, formerly a Taliban bastion. And President Hamid Karzai identified Lashkar Gah as one of seven cities and provinces ready to transition from NATO to Afghan authority, a milestone intended to set the stage for greater autonomy throughout the volatile province.

However, NATO's commander in Helmand, U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, worried that the nascent provincial administration will not be up to the challenge. Only a third of Helmand's districts have active governing councils, and links between the national and provincial agencies are weak, he said.

Due to the Taliban's assassination campaign against perceived NATO collaborators, many local Afghan leaders cannot live in their own communities without NATO's protection. Coalition teams are also struggling to advise provincial institutions suffering from illiteracy, inexperience, and rampant corruption, much of it fueled by the poppy trade.

"I wish I could have more time to develop the district and community level pieces of governance, because I'm forcing a face — I'm forcing something on these communities and villages that they really don't trust right now," Toolan said.

Provincial Chief Judge Said Hosain Najibi estimated Helmand only has a third of the 4,000 prosecutorial judges required to establish law and order. Of 13 primary court districts in Helmand, Najibi said only four were active. The weakness of the legal system in Helmand means that many residents rely on tribal dispute resolution or Taliban courts, Najibi said.

"Security conditions in Helmand are such that police cannot collect evidence," Najibi said. "Even in Lashkar Gah the police are not able to carry out their duties because of security."

U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Leatherneck, a massive diesel-powered regional headquarters base in Helmand, have trained about 2,400 Afghan police and soldiers. But Toolan, the NATO commander, acknowledged that most of the Afghan recruits have come from outside of the province rather than Helmand's majority Pashtun tribes.

"The Pashtuns are contributing to the insurgency and they're probably making a good buck," said Toolan. "So they're saying, why join the army? It's hard. I can make money a little bit easier by laying a couple of IEDs and spraying a patrol with a couple of rounds and drawing them into an IED attack."

The Taliban has undermined the training process with infiltration attacks by Afghan recruits against international forces on NATO bases, including two attacks in Helmand since 2009 by renegade Afghan troops which killed eight British soldiers. Toolan said the attacks threaten to create "an internal conflict" between NATO mentors and their trainees.

"The relationship that we had between each other — they're eating away at it," he said.

The Taliban is also eating away at the gossamer telecommunications networks that bind communities and struggling markets in Helmand.

For nearly all Helmandis, cellular phone service is the only service available. But coalition and Afghan officials said the insurgency threatens to shut service down in other provinces unless service is shut down in Helmand, according to Afghan and coalition officials. The phone companies oblige, and the Taliban demands payment for the limited service the companies are allowed to provide.

U.S. Marine Col. Dave Burton, NATO's military intelligence chief in Helmand, said the practice is meant to shield insurgents from eavesdropping and from their fighters being tracked. It is also sabotage.

"We did not anticipate the negative effect that it would have on the government of Afghanistan's ability to command and control, because really there is no infrastructure," said Burton. "We don't have landlines."

One reason the Taliban fight so hard in Helmand is because they are from here. Southern Afghanistan is the homeland of the Pashtuns, who dominate the Taliban.

Another reason is because Helmand province produces more poppy than any region on earth. The United Nations says Helmand's poppy fields alone comprise about 160,618 acres — or about half of Afghanistan's opium production — and that's after a rash of poppy blight caused a 40 percent decline since 2008.

The Helmand Plan calls for licit agriculture to sustain the economy and hobble the insurgency. But coalition-funded poppy eradication programs will affect only about three percent of Afghanistan's harvest this year, say drug control officials. And record high dry opium prices — $125 a pound in March — are working against the plan, as are Helmand's arid climate and dismal irrigation. Food crops like wheat and corn take far more water than poppy and yield a fraction of opium profits.

And the Taliban makes poppy easy. Taliban henchmen stake struggling poppy farmers, finance irrigation wells and smuggle in Iranian gasoline to power water pumps. The coalition's goal of modernizing Helmand's food crop distribution systems is years away, but narcotics networks are deeply rooted. The Taliban sets poppy futures markets, runs opium processing facilities, and links farmers to narco-distribution networks through Pakistan and Iran into Europe and North America.

Poppy produces profits for Helmand's corrupt elite, but also livelihoods for many of the province's poorest people.

The Taliban "are competing with the government for the provision of services," said Cooling, the U.S. Marine combat operations chief in Helmand. "So they have to provide their (services) while preventing the government of Afghanistan from providing a legal replacement."