Helmand, Afghanistan – The driver of our police pick-up truck, in his mid twenties sporting a trimmed beard, made a proud claim as he chewed on his tobacco: in his four years with the unit of 83 officers, the Taliban could only inflict one injury and no casualties.
We were on patrol with Afghan police in Bolan, about 30 minutes outside Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand, the deadliest province for Afghan and international forces. The soldiers, crammed in the back of two pick-up trucks, first drove through a vast neighbourhood sparsely dotted by mud houses. Then, for about an hour, they picked their way through cornfields. No roadside bombs, no ambushes.
But that’s only part of the picture.
A week earlier, during Eid festivities, the Taliban attacked a check-post in neighbouring Nad Ali district. The police there asked for additional help – and the commander of Lashkargah’s 4th precinct, under which Bolan falls, had a 32-man patrol on ready to secure the festival.
He personally led a team to Nad Ali, helping to repel the attackers. In the ensuing gun battle, two Taliban fighters were killed and the rest escaped on motorbikes, a popular vehicle for members of the group.
The same week, two police officers were killed in neighbouring Chagir as they tried to defuse a Taliban-Improvised Explosive Device (IED), increasingly the weapon of their choice.
The Taliban no longer has the ability to wage large battles for taking over cities like Lashkargah, Afghan officials and western diplomats told Al Jazeera. The improving reach of the Afghan security forces, as their numbers have increased despite concerns about training and equipment, has gradually tightened that space for the insurgency.
But the Taliban has remained effective at creating the “choking perception around” big cities, as one former security minister calls it, through sustained attacks on key locations.
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As an adaptive hit-and-run force heavily reliant on IEDs, suicide bombings, and assassination campaigns, they have sustained an intimidating presence in large parts of the southern Afghanistan, including in areas where US President Barack Obama’s troop surge was supposed to clear and hold.
“I swear to god, I can’t even leave my home,” said Qataar Khan, a tribal elder in Marjah district. “And at home, I don’t get any sleep out of fear.”
Marjah, which has about 75,000 residents, was the sight of one of the biggest coalition offensives in 2010, involving about 20,000 troops – Afghan, British and US. Qataar Khan says there is a police presence in his village now – about three checkposts – but the insurgents “appear at night like thieves” to attack their targets. In recent weeks in his village of Trikh Nor, the Taliban killed two people – an elderly shopkeeper and a young man with a speech impediment – for alleged ties to the government.
Officials admit the Taliban are playing a waiting game in Helmand, biding their time until the international forces withdraw. But they say the Afghan forces are up to the challenge if tested by Taliban.
“Yes, the Taliban leadership is giving its forces the foreign withdrawal as an incentive to continue fighting – that they will be able to conduct raids on Afghan forces then and defeat them,” says Naeem Baluch, the recently appointed governor of Helmand who served as the province’s intelligence chief for two years. “But their (Taliban) calculation is wrong – it's only deceiving their forces. The assessment that we have of our troops – of their capacity, capability, and support among people – we are confident that we can answer any Taliban raid.
The last time Lashkargah was at serious risk of coming under Taliban control was in October 2008, when the group tried to penetrate it with a series of daring attacks, involving hundreds of fighters in the span of a week. As they bombarded the city with mortars, British airpower was called in to help Afghan forces – an option that will no longer be available after foreigners withdraw. The Taliban pulled back after suffering heavy casualties ; reports suggested nearly 100 fighters were killed.
Since then, they have not attempted such major assaults on Lashkargah. Control of the city was transferred to Afghan forces in the first round of security transition - a sign of progress made in the past four years, according to the government.
But that progress has come at a heavy cost, both in cash and human life: about 740 international coalition troops have been killed in the province since 2001. The Afghan government would not disclose their heavy casualties for “morale” reasons, one officials said.
The Taliban has "lost the space“ they "had created for themselves through intimidation and terror", Baluch says. “They cannot carry out the activities they did in 2007 or 2008.”
But the gains are fragile, requiring more time for consolidation, western diplomats in Kabul admit. The withdrawal date of 2014 is set based on western electoral cycles, not the realities on the ground. Some in Afghanistan want western forces to stay for an extra two or three years to make sure the achievements are not reversed.
"We can rip a couple of the bearded infidels (Taliban) into pieces to give them a taste of their own medicine."
- Senior official in Helmand province
The Taliban still looms large even if it has lost the ability to fight a trench war. Not a single day goes by in Helmand and the rest of the south without roadside bombs blowing vehicles into pieces. And their assassination campaign against tribal elders and government sympathisers continues. In neighbouring Kandahar, the Taliban has killed over 500 public figures in the past decade.
“The foreigners want us to fight a brutal enemy with human rights in mind – once they withdraw, that won’t be an issue,” a senior official in Helmand province told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. The official has recieved several threat notices from intelligence services. The latest intelligence briefing, which he pulled from his pocket, showed that he was a Taliban target.
"We can rip a couple of the bearded infidels (Taliban) into pieces to give them a taste of their own medicine – and we will see then if they are man enough to continue the same intimidation," he said with bravado.
In a sign that the war has already taken a ruthless turn, a Taliban fighter was recently killed by local forces in Marjah and then tied to a vehicle and dragged around, the official said. Details of the incident could not be confirmed with locals in Marjah. The district administrator of Marjah said he had heard such rumours, but found no evidence for it in his investigation.
“I am harsher on my security forces than I am on the insurgents – I have made it clear to them that I would not tolerate abuse or disrespect of enemy corpses,” said Abdul Mutalib Majboor, the Marjah district administrator. “We need to hold up high standards to win public trust.”
Back in the 4th precinct police department, a team of British army soldiers paid a visit to check on how the police had secured the recent Eid festivities. They were pleased that Second Lieutenant Rahmatullah, the Afghan commander, had lent a helping hand in repelling the Taliban attack in Nad Ali.
Lieutenant Rahmatullah complained about a lack of winter gear for his soldiers.
“We are not giving them the gear directly – they should go through their own chain of command for it,” the British soldier said on the side. “So they are used to that once we leave.”