After years of bloodshed, a tenuous calm has emerged in Helmand. Large swaths of the southern Afghan province, once a bastion of the Taliban insurgency, have been wrested from militant control.
The daily firefights and roadside bombs that plagued Helmand have abated. Development is evident. Schools have been built, roads have been paved, and markets reopened. Local elections have been held, giving the government the opportunity to expand its presence to remote areas.
But despite the inroads, security in the province has been piecemeal and few residents appear optimistic about the future.
Some express fears that the Taliban will return in force once foreign troops leave. Others say Afghanistan's fledgling security forces will be unable to protect the hard-fought gains made in Helmand. And rampant corruption has diminished confidence in the local government.
A Job Undone?
Around 8,000 American and 9,000 British soldiers are currently deployed in the province, but most are on their way out in keeping with the expected withdrawal of most foreign forces by the end of 2014.
The 24,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops stationed in Helmand lead the vast majority of combat operations -- about 80 percent. In the coming months they will take full control of security in the province, with coalition forces stepping back into an advisory role.
Some residents who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan said they were concerned that international troops will leave before the job is done. The Taliban, despite being pushed back, has continued intermittent fighting in pockets in the province's north. The province's poppy harvest, which provides some 40 percent of the world's opium supply, remains a prized asset for the militants.
Abdul Aziz is a resident of Lashkargah, the provincial capital. Aziz says that without the presence of Western soldiers, Helmand will descend into chaos. He says that while the daily violence in the capital has slowed, militants have continued to sow fear through sporadic attacks on tribal elders and government officials.
"There is no security. Currently, you see that the Taliban are placing mines inside the city." Aziz says. "And if foreign troops go out [of Afghanistan], it is possible that we will go back to [how it was] three or four years ago. And the Taliban might come back and take control of all the areas and all efforts made by the government and the military will have been in vain."
In several northern districts in Helmand, violence has gone up in the past year. Najeeb Dawari is a resident of the Marjah district, the scene of one of the largest offensives of the war. He says the huge sacrifices made to capture Marjah could all be for nothing if coalition forces leave without leaving behind an Afghan force capable of protecting those gains.
A "surge" consisting of 15,000 U.S. and British soldiers was dispatched in 2010 to Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in central Helmand. After months of fierce fighting that resulted in a high numbers of fatalities, Marjah was wrested from Taliban control by the end of 2010.
Dawari says the Taliban is now "creeping back" and could pounce again once coalition forces depart.
"People are very hopeless now. When I myself go out to the city I have this point in mind as to whether I will return home soundly," Dawari says, "All is hopeless. When we see the police, they are in danger. Despite being armed and having authority, they are being killed in the city. So, as an ordinary shopkeeper, I am afraid that there will be a suicide attack today and that I will be killed in the next attack."
A sign of the fragile gains was an audacious attack carried out earlier this year by insurgents against Camp Bastion, a heavily fortified NATO base in northern Helmand that houses some 20,000 British troops. Militants using mortars and rocket-propelled grenades killed two American Marines in February and destroyed or severely damaged eight attack jets, causing more than $200 million in damage.
The bold attack on Camp Bastion, one of the largest and best defended posts in Afghanistan, stands as the costliest single attack that the international coalition has sustained in terms of damage.
As fearful as locals are of a Taliban comeback, they are equally angry at the provincial and central government, which they accuse of being ineffective and corrupt.
Aziz says farmers, many of whom have been left impoverished as a result of the government's poppy-eradication campaign, will quickly return to cultivation and look to the Taliban for protection.
He alleges that while many officials outwardly support the war on drugs, many turn a blind eye to poppy harvesting and even extort money from farmers.
"In the current situation, the Afghan forces cannot [maintain security] because all the senior and junior officials are thinking about their own pockets," Aziz says. "Because of that, I don't think that the government will be able to safeguard Afghanistan or, in general, Helmand after 2014."
Despite the fragile security in Helmand, the international presence there is diminishing by the day. Of the 240 NATO bases that were once located in the province, only 44 remain. Helmand's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which has been heavily involved in efforts to rebuild hospitals, schools, and roads over the past seven years, is also packing its bags.
The drawdown of foreign forces is going into motion just as Afghan troops enter the heaviest fighting season. Questions surround the readiness of Afghan forces, which suffer from a high rate of desertion, a poor reenlistment record, low morale, and a lack of equipment.
But officials believe the Afghan security forces and police will be able to manage, regardless of what the Taliban throws at it. Abdul Nabil, the provincial police chief of Helmand, is among those who are optimistic.
"We have always said that the [Afghan National Police] are becoming more professional with every passing day," Nabil says. "The provincial police department of Helmand is trying all it can to train a police force that the people want and the law requires."
Elias Dayee of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report