LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- The dusty ground thrums under the heels of the troops being retrained to save Afghanistan's largest and most dangerous province.
Hundreds of U.S. military advisers are overseeing the retraining of thousands of Afghan troops operating under the umbrella of the Afghan National Army's 215th Maiwand Corps. It is one of the six Afghan regional commands tasked with protecting Helmand, which has seen rapid Taliban advances during the past year.
With the advent of the new fighting season after the Taliban unveiled their latest offensive, Helmand is in the eye of the storm as the insurgents push hard to overrun the region central to their recruitment. Its status as the center of global drug production also guarantees to insurgent war chests brimming.
The headquarters of the 215th Maiwand Corps in Helmand's sprawling capital Lashkar Gah echoes with loud cries of “Allah-hu-Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and "promises to serve our homeland" as columns of Afghan troops march at the end of a two-month rapid retraining regime.
They are trying to conceal their lack of discipline and skill with enthusiasm as young soldiers often struggle to keep pace with the military drill rhythm. Soon they will be deployed to frontlines across Helmand, where thousands of Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed as Taliban overran or contest 11 of Helmand's 15 districts during the past year.
Abdul Jabar Qahraman, a former communist general now in charge of all Afghan forces in Helmand, says that by removing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of his forces, he expects them to stand their ground and even reclaim territories from the insurgents.
"Ultimately, it all depend on those who are keeping the flame of war alight in our homeland. We are ready to take on any challenges that our opponents are capable of throwing at us now," he said. "But if the dynamics of the battlefield change radically, for example, if the neighbors supporting the insurgents here double or triple their resources, then we will be forced to reconfigure our response."
An estimated 350,000 troops are bracing for a difficult year. After the withdrawal of most international troops at the end of NATO's combat operations in 2014, it is the second year when they are expected to face a robust insurgent offensive in the face of diminishing international support. The loss of NATO's planning, intelligence support, and superior firepower has badly hurt the Afghan forces. In addition, Afghan generals have been forced to lead and plan a war after relying on Western military mentors for years.
With help from a battalion of 500 U.S. soldiers, four battalions of the Afghan Army 215th Corps have been redeployed to the frontline districts.
"We are not only here to repair your vehicles, but to help with weapons and share intelligence," a U.S. military officer overseeing the training told Afghan cadets in March. "Now is not the time to stay behind high blast walls, watchtowers, and barbed wire. You must abandon your defensive posture. It is now the time to fight."
Kabul and its Western allies were alarmed earlier this year when insurgents overran Musa Qala and Nawzad districts and virtually surrounded Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah.
Abdul Tawab Qureshi, a military expert in Helmand, says the Afghan forces need to clean up their ranks from corruption, find better leadership, and secure long-term intelligence and air support from U.S. forces if they hope to win the war.
"Some of the leadership in the security forces have been appointed because of their connections, which renders them incapable of leading troops in battle," he said. "Corruption is also a major problem."
To fight corruption, the Afghan leadership recently appointed Major General Moein Faqir to lead the 2015th Corps after thousands of "ghost" soldiers were discovered among the estimated 18,000 soldiers of the force. While their salaries were regularly paid, nobody served or even made roll calls.
Qahraman, the operational commander of Afghan security forces in Helmand, is optimistic his men are on the right path toward defeating the enemy. He says the 215th Corps now has its own drone fleet that watches Helmand's nearly 60,000 square kilometers day and night.
"We have build the military capacity to face any eventuality in Helmand," he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.