|Afghan police commander Fareed Nourzay was killed in an attack in Helmand province [Al Jazeera]
After being trapped by a Taliban siege, Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr looks at how US-led forces are planning to seize control of Afghanistan's most volatile province, and the guerrilla-style counterattacks being planned by Taliban fighters.
When he first stepped out of his police vehicle, it was obvious to me that Fareed Nourzay was one of the best police commanders.
That is how his colleagues describe him. The first on the scene, his bravery may have been the reason he got killed.
Fareed lost his life on Saturday when his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand.
We met Fareed a few days before his death.
He had led a joint Afghan-US quick-reaction force just to help our crew after we got stuck along the Helmand-Kandahar highway.
We had been driving back to Kabul after spending almost a week in Helmand when we couldn't continue further.
Just 15km outside Lashkar Gah, we were forced to stop. The Taliban had laid siege to the area by blowing up a bridge and setting up checkpoints.
"I was sent by the governor and the police chief to rescue you - are you all okay?" Fareed asked us after we'd spent six hours on the road.
It was only a few kilometres from where we met Fareed that the IED later exploded - ending his life.
It is a dangerous job, a dangerous country - and Helmand is one of the most insecure areas in Afghanistan.
Lashkar Gah is many kilometres from where US and Afghan troops are clearing Taliban-controlled districts.
That, however, doesn't guarantee success.
Even in the government-controlled provincial capital, the Taliban is still ever present.
A suicide attack left four private Afghan security guards dead. Rockets also landed at the governor's compound.
This is how the Taliban operates - they don't engage in direct combat, and that is why it is difficult to defeat them.
They have also been striking back at British and US troops - inflicting heavy casualties through roadside bombings.
Helmand is a strategic area where the drug trade flourishes and Taliban fighters enjoy safe havens - it is unlikely they will give up without a fight.
But police commanders say they are cutting off the Taliban's major supply lines.
Asadullah Shinzad, the police commander in Helmand, told Al Jazeera: "We are planning to secure the Baramsha border crossing to prevent the Taliban from getting supplies from Pakistan.
"The Taliban uses this point to enter Helmand and then they use roads to reach at least four other provinces."
Afghan defence officials also explained how they intend to take over this area.
"Once we take over an area where there is poppy cultivation, we cut the Taliban's financial revenue," Zahir Al Azimy, the Afghan defence ministry spokesman, said.
"And when we establish control in a district they will lose 50-60 per cent of their fighters because the Taliban forces many villagers to join them while others do it for money."
But while the US and Afghanistan talk of long-term changes on the ground, one of the main objectives of the offensive is more short term - to allow voting to take place all across this volatile province.
Ghulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, told Al Jazeera: "Security will be provided in central and southern Helmand ... so far the operation has been successful and we are expanding security.
"Very soon the registration process for the elections will start. All those who couldn't vote in Helmand will now be able to."
|The US military says it is determined to rid Helmand of Taliban fighters [AFP]
The ongoing offensive may achieve its short-term goal, but winning the trust and confidence of the local population may be the real challenge.
A resident of Garamsir district, who preferred to remain anonymous, told us: "We need Sharia law - we won't be happy if infidels dominate us.
"This operation is destroying our honour. It is not because of the elections, as they say."
Others were worried that the presence of international forces would only lure the Taliban back.
Hajj Mohammed, the head of the Shura council in Nadaly district, said: "We want peace but I don't want it the way they are doing it ... bombing our villages and killing our people is not the way.
"Whenever foreigners build bases in our villages ... it becomes a battleground. Instead they should block the roads the enemy uses."
US and Afghan officials say they are determined to rid the area of the Taliban and bring about peace and security.
And this time around, they say the strategy will be different.
They have been working closely with tribal leaders in Taliban-controlled regions. The message they are sending is, 'We are here to stay and improve your lives'.
"This operation is different than others," the governor told us.
"We will provide long-term security and set up checkpoints. We won't allow terrorists to infiltrate. The Afghan forces will receive support from international forces until they are able to take over security."
But the biggest challenge will be holding territory captured from the Taliban.
There just aren't enough Afghan troops.
Brigadier-General Larry Nicholson, the US commander in charge of the offensive in Helmand, has said he urgently needs more Afghan security forces to ensure long-term success.
Zamary Beshari, the Afghan interior ministry spokesman, said: "At the moment we have 82,000 policemen ... we will be recruiting 15,000 more troops but this is still not enough. Also these 15,000 new recruits lack equipment and training".
US commanders say Afghan security forces will have to be far larger than currently planned if the war is to be won, but that will take time and billions of dollars - and those forces are needed now.
US commanders warn the Taliban are likely to launch counterattacks because of the profitable poppy crop.
The enemy, they say, is not just going to stay away
The Taliban has announced it will counter the US offensive - dubbed Operation Strike of the Sword.
Operation Metal Net, as the Taliban call it, will be a guerrilla war that they say that "won't allow the sword to penetrate".
"I have two messages for the enemy - those who want peace, I tell them the Afghan government has good intentions," the governor said.
"But those who want to kill and fight ... I warn them, we will destroy them in all areas."
Defiant words, but on the ground the reality shows the tough task that lies ahead.
The Taliban can, and usually do, return.
The battle has only just begun.
Source: Al Jazeera