GRESHK, Afghanistan – Helmand was supposed to become the breadbasket of Afghanistan after the United States built a large dam here in the 1950s.
Instead, nearly 70 years later, Helmand has turned into one of the most dangerous frontlines, where the Taliban and Afghan government forces now appear to be in a stalemate.
The road to Greshk, a rural agricultural district in Helmand, heralds its status as a major frontline. Many of its bridges were recently destroyed. The wreckage of Humvees used by Afghan security forces is a reminder of the ferocity of Taliban attacks.Abundant empty bullet casings are a warning of the frequent but unpredictable firefights between the insurgents and government forces that often kill civilians.
Most houses along the road lay in ruins. Some are barricaded and sandbagged and only used as government posts overlooking the road. The Taliban’s white banner jostles for attention with the tricolor Afghan national flag as the two sides vie to plant more flags than the other along one of the country’s most dangerous stretches of road.
Most of the once-fertile fields are now barren or are home to just weeds and shrubs. Many of those living or traveling in the region face a constant fear of death and violence.
“We are living in hell. We have no security, and no one feels safe,” says Haji Agha Gul, a resident of Greshk, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The Taliban are causing most of the insecurity, but the government forces too are not far behind.”
In Wazir Manda, one of the hundreds of Greshk's villages, a burned-out military armored vehicle marks the site of one of the latest encounters between the warring sides. In the distance, one can see the newly installed transmission towers expected to soon bring electricity from Helmand’s Kajaki Dam to the regional capital, Lashkar Gah. Although very slow, modernity is creeping into Helmand.
Surprisingly, the single street bazaar in Gresk is bustling. Locals see is as relatively safe compared with the outlying villages, which are mostly controlled by the insurgents.
“We at the bazaar are satisfied with the security situation day and night and feel protected by the local army unit,” says Bilal Ahmad, who lives near the market.
But business has suffered. “The market is dead,” said grocery store owner Mohmmad Fahim. “How can there be any progress when there is fighting all around us?”
Greshk turned into one of the most hotly contested districts in Helmand when that Taliban launched a major offensive following the departure of most NATO troops at the end of 2014. Over the next three years, it was the scene of some major battles between Afghan security forces and the Taliban, which forced many of its estimated 150,000 residents to flee.
By summer 2016, the Taliban controlled or contested 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts and had virtually surrounded Lashkar Gah, a city of 200,000 residents.
Helmand’s status as Afghanistan’s largest province finally prompted Kabul to launch counter attacks to reclaim territories in 2017. The region is home to most of the world’s illicit poppy cultivation and drug production. It borders Pakistan and is near Iran, which gave Kabul and its Western allies added reasons to devote more resources to the fighting in Helmand.
While the Taliban still control large swathes of the countryside in Helmand, government forces are back on major roads and control or contest most major towns and district centers.
“We have created a peaceful atmosphere in all the regions we control,” Muhammad Sleem Rudhi, the district governor in Greshk, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
“The main reason behind the growing stability is coordination between the civilian authorities and the security forces. We are committed to contributing to the well-being of our people,” he added.
Few in Greshk seem ready to share such optimism. Rather, they are focusing on surviving amid hope and despair for the foreseeable future.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Greshk, Helmand.