News - Afghanistan
A dozen young Afghan men engage in a tough basketball battle in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. The men play on a newly-built playground which until only a few years ago was the Taliban's front line to target the provincial intelligence headquarters and other government offices across Helmand River.
"Today it's another fight happening here – a fight for peace, coexistence and tolerance," says Aminullah, 26, as he sets up shot to send the ball through the hoop ahead of a basketball match between Lashkar Gah and Marjah teams.
"The weapon being used in today's battle is a ball which brings people together, not an RPG to harm people," he adds.
The Taliban launched a day-long attack on the intelligence headquarters from the same ground three years ago which led to the death of scores of people on both sides, according to local officials.
It's not only a basketball ground today, but a green park on the Helmand River side where families come for picnics. Even local residents hardly believe such progress was imaginable a few years back.
The insurgents have been driven from the outskirts of Lashkar Gah and most of the neighbouring districts, a place once considered Afghanistan's most volatile province.
"You can drive to almost everywhere in the whole province now," says provincial police chief Col Abdu Nabi Elham, pointing, however, to four heavily-armoured Humvees parked in his large headquarters in Lashkar Gah which he uses as a counter-IED measure to travel to the relatively insecure districts in the north.
It was to Helmand that President Barack Obama sent most of his "surge" troops in 2010 to engage with the Taliban. Not only was it the most insecure region in the country, it was also the home of more than 90 per cent of drugs produced in Afghanistan.
"You cannot compare today's Helmand with two or three years ago," says Col Elham.
Security is no longer the number one challenge for the people of Helmand, who are demanding more schools, job opportunities and investments to ensure the gains are sustainable.
However, despite the success in pushing back the Taliban from the populated areas in the vast province - Helmand is one tenth of Afghanistan - the troops have failed to secure Baghran district in the north and Disho district in the south. Both remain strongholds of the Taliban.
While the security improvements have seen 55 schools reopened across Helmand in the past two years, according to the provincial education department statistics, in Baghran and Disho there is no single school open and no children attend any formal education.
When asked what plans the government has to capture the two Taliban-governed districts, Col Elham replies that the security forces are ready and are waiting the request of the local population.
But security expert Tofan Waziri says the government lacks the operational capability to launch attacks against the Taliban in those districts. Baghran borders Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces and Disho borders Pakistan.
Elham is confident that the Afghan forces are capable of maintaining security across Helmand after the Nato-led troops are totally withdrawn, arguing that the Taliban no longer enjoys the support of the local population.
But the residents are not convinced, saying the government needs to do more than simply provide security otherwise the situation will deteriorate.
"There is some sort of a governance vacuum, which is critical after such military gains. Soldiers cannot deliver all services a society deserves," resident Baryalai Helmand tells TOLOnews.
The security gains in Helmand will remain fragile until good governance is introduced, he adds, fearing that if the government cannot sustain the progress, there is no guarantee that the basketball ground will not once again be used as a launching pad for Taliban attacks.