LOY BAGH, Afghanistan -- The battle against the Taliban in Helmand province was so fierce two years ago that local farmers say there were some fields where every ear of corn had a bullet in it.
Now, it is peaceful enough that safety concerns were an afterthought during this year's harvest. In districts of Helmand like Marja and Nad Ali that used to be Taliban strongholds, life has been transformed by the U.S. troop surge that brought in tens of thousands of Marines three years ago. Over several recent days, a reporter was able to drive securely to places that in the past had been perilous without a military escort, and many of the roads were better paved, too.
So why, then, was it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand province?
In conversations with dozens of tribal elders, farmers, teachers and provincial officials, three factors loomed large: dissatisfaction with the Afghan government, the imminent departure of Western troops and recognition that the Taliban are likely to return. Few expressed much faith in the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the security gains won by the huge U.S. and British military effort.
Although some people said they believed that areas near the provincial capital would remain secure, beyond that there was little confidence, and many voiced worries that much of the province would drift back under Taliban control after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014.
Even now, with at least 6,500 Marines still in Helmand after a peak of 21,000 troops last year in Helmand and neighboring Nimroz provinces, local people say the Taliban have begun "creeping back." Residents report that threats from nearby militant commanders have increased, and that the Taliban are sending in radical mullahs to preach jihad in the mosques and woo the young and unemployed to their cause.
As fearful as residents may be of a resurgent Taliban, they are also angry at the government for what they see as widespread corruption and hypocrisy. Some of that anger focuses on bribery connected with government services, and some on policies relating to the opium trade, which still thrives in this region.
Helmand is the supplier of more than 40 percent of the world's opium, according to United Nations statistics, and the poppy crop is still the most profitable one by far. Even farmers who are willing to grow other crops are angry at officials who have eradicated poppy but failed to provide enough help with alternatives. Farmers say some of those same officials profit from the drug trade they profess to be fighting.
"Before the surge, the government in Helmand did not control even a single district," said Hajji Atiqullah, a leader of the powerful Barakzai tribe in the Nawa district of central Helmand. "They had a presence in the district centers, a very small area, but the Marines cleared many districts, and they expanded the presence of the central government."
Afghan forces now control his district, he said, but will not be able to hold it unless "the foreigners manage to get rid of corruption in the Afghan government, in the districts and the province levels."
Local elders fear that many farmers, especially those impoverished by the government's strict poppy eradication policies, will return to opium cultivation and look to the Taliban or other criminals for protection because the government has not offered them a satisfactory substitute livelihood.
"Before the Marines launched this big offensive, Marja was the center of the opium trade," said Ahmad Shah, the chairman of the Marja development shura, a group of elders that works with the government to try to bring change here. "Millions and millions of Pakistani rupees were being traded every day in the bazaar. People were so rich that in some years a farmer could afford to buy a car.
"We were part of the eradication efforts by the government, and if they had provided the farmer with compensation, we could have justified our act. But the government failed to provide compensation, and unless it does so, the people will turn against us or join the insurgency and be against development, as they were during the Taliban."
Part of the government's rationale for poppy eradication was to starve militants of the opium profits that have been important to their finances. As opium cultivation was pushed away from the centers of the U.S. troop surge, the Taliban made new allies by providing protection for farmers who moved their poppy cultivation to outlying deserts. Over the past few years, militants and opium farmers have increasingly found common cause.
A largely British-financed alternative crop program made significant headway at first in persuading farmers to switch crops, but few farmers could do as well as they had with opium.
Juma Khan, a farmer in Nad Ali, substituted wheat and corn for opium poppies but now cannot make enough to feed his family. That means not only a gnawing in his children's stomachs but a delay in seeking medical services and marriages for his sons, as well as a feeling of being abandoned by the government.
"When we used to cultivate poppy, I made enough money to have sheep, and we could eat meat whenever we wanted," said Mr. Khan, 53, standing in the middle of his corn fields in the hamlet of Loy Bagh on an autumn afternoon, stripping kernels from the dried cobs with his six children working beside him. "Now we eat a little meat only once every two weeks."
He hopes that the government will subsidize cotton, a favorite crop locally and one worth more than wheat. But the government would have to create a market by buying the cotton, which so far it has declined to do.
"We feel kind of lost," he said, gazing bleakly at his fields of dried cornstalks.
Several district officials and tribal elders noted that legal agriculture had received a huge boost from roads paved as part of the U.S. troop surge. The new roads and security have greatly reduced the ability of militants to plant roadside bombs and allowed farmers to take their crops to bigger markets.
Hajji Atiqullah, tribal leader in Nawa, says the road between his city and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has been life-changing.
"This road will last for many years, and I think people will remember it as one of the biggest contributions of the American Marines," he said.
Other economic benefits, however, are dwindling as the Western troops leave.
The surge brought jobs for many rural residents. There were small irrigation and construction projects, which are finished now.
In Marja alone, about 1,400 people were hired to work for the informal security forces set up by the Marines at the height of the surge, according to elders in Marja. But when the Interior Ministry began to integrate these forces into the Afghan Local Police, they offered places to only 400, said Mr. Shah, the chairman of the development shura.
As the rest find themselves jobless, village elders say, they will turn to whoever will protect them, even if that is the Taliban or criminals.
On a recent day, the commander of the Afghan Local Police unit in Marja, Hajji Asif Khan, was closing down 21 of his outposts because the men had not been accepted into the police contingent approved by the Interior Ministry. Those 21 posts had 100 men, each of whom helped support his family on the monthly $120 salary, Mr. Khan said.
"Now, the enemy knows these people, and every one of them is a target," he said.
One commander, Koko Jan, who had just lost his post in the small hamlet known as Block 5, said he had 70 men a few months ago but now had none. Angry and confused, he railed against the government.
"I will not go to the Taliban, but I will do anything else to feed my family, and I told them I might go to the desert where there is no government and cultivate poppy," he said.
Western military leaders say lasting security in this region is up to the Afghan government now, but they sound reserved about its ability to do the job.
"The prerequisite, the foundation of security has been laid by us and by the Afghan National Security Forces," said Maj. Gen. David Berger, commanding general for ground forces in Helmand. "The necessary follow-on step is the governance. The challenge now is for the government to step in and fill that void."
He added, "It comes down to choices for people in Helmand between what the Taliban have to offer and what the government has to offer."
The Taliban may be diminished in number and farther from population centers, but they cannot be written off, many Helmand residents said. In the far northern districts of Helmand, only the district centers, if those, are under government control. The rest of the province is mostly under government control, except the vast western desert, which remains dominated by the Taliban.
According to the U.S. military, the number of violent attacks dropped by 50 percent or more from 2011 to 2012 in the central districts of Marja and Garmsir and the northern district of Sangin. But in most of the north, violence was as prevalent, and sometimes more so, in 2012 as it was in 2011.
The Helmand residents know that well, and few believe the Afghan government can prevail here once the troops and money are gone.
In Nad Ali on a recent morning, members of the district shura, asked what they thought would happen after 2014, smiled knowingly.
"Let's be honest," said Mohammed Omar Barakzai, a senior shura member. "The Afghan government is like a generator. The foreigners have provided enough fuel so that it will run until 2014. If they don't refill the fuel tank, it will stop working."world