Afghan army struggles to stay mobile
The umbilical connection between the US marines at Camp Leatherneck and the new model Afghan army in Camp Shorabak is a sandy chicane known as Friendship Gate, where Helmand's Afghan garrison draws sustenance from its departing foreign advisers. Its dominant feature is a fortified American-manned heavy machine gun, pointing towards the Afghans.
The formidable weapon permanently aimed at a supposed ally is silent testimony to a relationship that is crucial to Helmand's future but remains a volatile mix of dependence, mutual admiration and deep distrust.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) 215th Corps is now 17,000-strong, gaining in confidence and competence and, according to local polling, generally well respected. It has managed to hold on to the main population areas in Helmand in the face of a Taliban attempt to retake lost territory and as a result the province's towns are much safer than they were a year ago.
But the ANA still cannot fight on its own. Only one of the 215th Corps' four brigades is anywhere near full battle readiness. In fact, a Pentagon report in early December revealed that only one of the ANA's 23 brigades across the country had reached that point. The Taliban's success in infiltrating its ranks has contributed to the number of "green-on-blue", or insider attacks, in which Afghan troops turn their guns on their foreign mentors. There were 12 such attacks in Helmand in 2012, all fatal, sawing away at the bonds of trust on which the Nato exit strategy is based.
Even more importantly, there are early signs that the ANA may be struggling to hold the line on a critical front in the war: the ability to protect Afghan civilians from the Taliban.
The latest UN figures show that the Taliban are now responsible for 84% of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, while the government and its foreign allies are responsible for only 6% (10% are unattributable). And the data for the August-October period shows a dramatic spike in those killings, up 28% from the same period last year, suggesting that ordinary Afghans are becoming more vulnerable as the Afghan army takes responsibility for protecting them.
Brigadier General Ghulam Farouq Parwani, deputy commander of the 215th Corps and a 30-year veteran of Afghanistan's many wars, insists his men can handle the Taliban threat on their own after US and British combat troops leave Helmand by the end of 2014. But only if they are given the tools for the job.
"If the promises made to the ANA are fulfilled, the Taliban will never regroup," Farouq said. "The only thing we lack here is equipment. We need artillery support.
"We have been promised a mobile strike force of 800 men with up-armour [shaped to deflect road mines] and advanced weaponry. And we need our own aviation, because sometimes our coalition partners are busy."
...They will likely get the up-armored vehicles. The bigger question may be whether they can maintain them in operational condition. The illiteracy level is still too high to count on that. The vehicles will be there because the US really does not have a big demand for them after our forces leave Afghanistan. The Afghans are also going to have the same treachery problems that t US forces have. That appears to be the Taliban's only effective method of attack. The statistics on casualties suggest they are also targeting civilians in large numbers. This should create a situation where teh locals will provide intelligence to the troops.