Analysts who know Helmand say a corrupt government poses one of the biggest hurdles to stability, alienating the local population and driving them into the hands of the Taliban.
The province is strategically important because of a massive poppy production that is financing the insurgency and fueling criminal activity. While some success has been achieved at getting farmers to plant substitute crops, Helmand is still one of Afghanistan’s largest opium-producing provinces, often blamed on anti-government sentiment and collusion between corrupt government officials and the Taliban.
The NATO-led coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, claims there are tangible gains against the Taliban in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province.
‘‘While insurgent activity remains problematic in several districts, primarily in northern Helmand and western Kandahar, data from the battle space shows a marked decrease in overall enemy activity,’’ ISAF spokesman Jamie Graybeal said recently.
Despite a drop of 8 percent in militant attacks from January to October compared to the same period last year, Helmand and neighboring Nimroz province accounted for 32 percent of all such attacks reported across the country from October 2011 to October this year, according to ISAF.
Ryan Evans, a research fellow at the U.S.-based Center for National Policy, called Helmand the ‘‘most dangerous and violent’’ of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
‘‘From 2010 to early 2012, one of five ISAF soldiers was killed in this one province — Helmand. And the province has since taken more lives and limbs than any other province,’’ said Evans, who worked with U.S. and British troops in Helmand during 2010 and 2011.
The larger question, of course, is whether what’s happening in Helmand is a harbinger of what the rest of Afghanistan will look like after the departure of the international troops.
A report released last month by the British Parliament’s International Development Committee offered grim statistics.
Afghanistan continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with the average person earning less than one dollar a day despite $32 billion in foreign investment.
The country has also tumbled in corruption ratings assembled by Transparency International. Afghanistan was ranked 117 out of 158 countries in 2005, then slid to 180 out of 183 nations last year. The scandal-ridden Kabul Bank milked millions of dollars from Afghans’ savings.
Some Afghans believe their countrymen are responsible for the current state of affairs.
Haji Khalil who moved his family from Marjah to Lashkar Gah during the 2010 offensive, blamed Afghans for the spike in thefts and lawlessness since the defeat of the Taliban.
‘‘During the Taliban no one would steal because we knew the punishment, but when they left everyone began to steal,’’ Khalil said.
‘‘We became worse after the Taliban,’’ he said. ‘‘The problem is with us.’’
Kathy Gannon is AP’s Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon