MARJA, Afghanistan — As the Afghan convoy entered the battered village, Taliban fighters opened fire. U.S.-trained Afghan policemen poured out of their Humvees and began wildly shooting their AK-47 rifles in every direction.
“The enemy is firing one bullet, and you are responding with dozens!” their commander, Col. Khalil Jawad, screamed into his radio in frustration. “Aim, then fire!”
A minute later, the militants melted away. On this day in early December in the southern province of Helmand, they had delivered their message: The Taliban is back, its fighters showing a battle discipline and initiative far superior to the Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the United States.
In private, top Afghan and American officials have begun to voice increasingly grim assessments of the resurgent Taliban threat, most notably in a previously undisclosed transcript of a late-October meeting of the Afghan National Security Council.
“We have not met the people’s expectations. We haven’t delivered,” Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive, told the high-level gathering. “Our forces lack discipline. They lack rotation opportunities. We haven’t taken care of our own policemen and soldiers. They continue to absorb enormous casualties.”
With control of — or a significant presence in — roughly 30 percent of districts across the nation, according to Western and Afghan officials, the Taliban now holds more territory than in any year since 2001, when the puritanical Islamists were ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks. For now, the top American and Afghan priority is preventing Helmand, largely secured by U.S. Marines and British forces in 2012, from again falling to the insurgency.
As of last month, about 7,000 members of the Afghan security forces had been killed this year, with 12,000 injured, a 26 percent increase over the total number of dead and wounded in all of 2014, said a Western official with access to the most recent NATO statistics. Attrition rates are soaring. Deserters and injured Afghan soldiers say they are fighting a more sophisticated and well-armed insurgency than they have seen in years.
As Afghan security forces struggle, U.S. Special Operations troops are increasingly being deployed into harm’s way to assist their Afghan counterparts. Since Nov. 4, four members of the U.S.-led coalition have been wounded in Helmand, said U.S. Army Col. Michael Lawhorn, a military spokesman. Officially, U.S. military personnel have a mandate only “to train, advise and assist” Afghan forces.
In the confidential October meeting, Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, told his Afghan counterparts that he was as guilty as they were of “just putting our finger in the dike in Helmand.”
But he was highly critical of Afghan security officials for “not managing” their forces in a way that ensured they got enough training, and for allowing “breakdowns in discipline” in the ranks. “The Taliban are not 10 feet tall,” he said. “You have much more equipment than they do. You’re better trained. It’s all about leadership and accountability.”
Campbell vowed “to fix Helmand.”
“I will use more of my SOF and enablers to buy you more space and time,” he said, referring to Special Operations forces. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of military rules, said Campbell’s comments represented “an attempt to encourage the Afghans to take action in Helmand province.”
Helmand was a key focus in a major American offensive launched in 2010, after President Obama dispatched a “surge” of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Marja was the first place Marines launched operations, and by the end of the surge, in late 2012, the Taliban had been subdued in much of its southern heartland.
Now, the fresh concerns over Helmand arrive at the end of a year in which the Taliban and other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State, have steadily advanced, particularly in the north. They have taken advantage of the end of the U.S. and NATO combat mission, which has left a military and political vacuum, forcing Obama to extend the U.S. role by keeping at least 5,500 U.S. troops here after he leaves office.
A Pakistani military operation has also flushed hundreds of well-trained foreign fighters into Afghanistan, bolstering the Taliban and the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the government is grappling with its own problems. The economy is crippled; high unemployment and corruption remain entrenched, breeding public resentment. Political infighting, policy disputes and leadership woes have deepened inside the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, who shares power with Abdullah, the chief executive. The cabinet remains incomplete, with no defense minister as the security issues become more serious.
The gains by the Taliban have come amid internal divisions and a leadership crisis triggered by the surprise announcement in the summer that its leader, Mohammad Omar, had been dead for more than two years. The contest for power and territory among Taliban factions, rather than weakening the movement, has spawned more uncertainty and violence.
The group’s infighting has blocked efforts by Ghani to bring the Taliban to peace talks. The insurgents’ new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, appears determined to prove his mettle and strengthen the Taliban’s bargaining position by escalating attacks, Western diplomats and analysts said. In September, the Taliban briefly seized Kunduz, the first city to fall since the demise of its regime, prompting the U.S. military to dispatch Special Operations troops and stage airstrikes to help the Afghan security forces retake control.
Now, the insurgents are on the doorsteps of several provincial capitals, applying more pressure on urban areas than in any year of the conflict. The clashes in Helmand have reflected the Taliban strategy that led to the takeover of Kunduz — seizing surrounding districts before moving in on the provincial capital. Already, the Taliban are in the enclave of Babaji, within the borders of Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah.
Helmand, which lies along the Pakistani border, is the source of much of the country’s opium, providing lucrative funding for the insurgents, who also collect “taxes” from the marble mining business. The province is home to the Kajaki Dam, which provides electricity to Helmand and to neighboring Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban. In some districts, electricity bills are paid to the Taliban.
In the Afghan National Security Council meeting, Rahmatullah Nabil, the nation’s intelligence chief, described the province as “the biggest recruiting tool for the Taliban” and its “primary source of revenue.” Nabil resigned Dec. 10 to protest Ghani’s peace overtures to Pakistan, which is viewed with suspicion by most Afghans for its backing of the Taliban.
The 21-mile-long road from Lashkar Gah to Marja is peppered with craters from bombs planted by the Taliban. Stores are shuttered; villages are silent. The residents have fled.
A mile from a civil-order police base, built by U.S. Marines for $17 million, a charred, mangled Humvee lies in the middle of the highway. A rocket-propelled grenade tore into it, and the Taliban later set it afire. On a recent day, the base was as far as anyone could go, at least by road: Less than a mile ahead, the Taliban had buried more mines.
“They have destroyed bridges. They have burned our houses,” Ghul Mawla Malang, a tribal elder who leads Marja’s Afghan Local Police (ALP), a U.S.-funded pro-government militia, told top police commanders in a meeting at the base.
A few minutes later, the Taliban fired a few rounds toward the base. The senior officials cut short their visit and left in their Humvees.
If there was one province in Afghanistan that the Taliban should have found impenetrable, it was Helmand. The Afghan army has its entire 215th Corps based here, numbering more than 18,000 soldiers. There are also thousands of Afghan police officers. Yet a few hundred Taliban fighters managed to overrun parts of Marja and other districts. Soldiers and police officers fled with little resistance or surrendered to the insurgents.
In Babaji, nine police officers including Abdul Qadim Hemat were unprepared last month when the Taliban fighters attacked their outpost. They were running out of ammunition. And reinforcements they had requested never turned up. “I watched seven comrades killed in front of me,” recalled Hemat, who soon fled along with the remaining officer. Both then deserted.
“We were surrounded, but we didn’t get any help,” Hemat said. “I will not shoot one bullet for the government again.”
In parts of Marja, villagers pine for U.S. troops — and the British forces who were once based here — to return.
“When they were here, Marja was as peaceful as this city,” said Ahmed Jan, who was bringing his 13-year-old nephew to a hospital in Lashkar Gah. A bullet had struck the boy in their village during fighting. “Now, the Taliban are like the government in my village. They drive police vehicles and Humvees, and they have raised their white flag over houses.”
In an interview, Gen. Mohammed Moeen Faqir, the commander of the 215th Corps, said that “only half of a percent” of his force may have deserted and that new recruits were filling the void. He noted that the police and ALP forces in Helmand were also under his command and that “whenever they needed reinforcements, I sent them.”
But the confidential transcript of the minutes from the National Security Council meeting presents a grimmer picture.
The Afghan army’s chief of staff, Gen. Qadam Shah Shaheem, said that limited reinforcements and new recruits couldn’t make up for force attrition in Helmand, according to the transcript, which was provided to The Washington Post by an official concerned by the insecurity in Helmand.
Some 40 percent of Afghan army vehicles in Helmand are broken, Shaheem said. He described a leadership crisis within the security forces, where “clashing personalities exist between the security pillars,” according to the transcript.
The morale of the security forces was low, said Nabil, the intelligence chief, and some soldiers had complained that they had not been home in two years. Junior commanders, he added, were “openly defying their superiors.” Gen. Mohammad Salem Ehsas, the top ALP commander, said that troops were tired and that there was poor coordination among the various security organs.
Campbell said that only about half the troop positions in the 215th Corps were manned. Western and Afghan officials said that was largely because of desertions, high casualty rates and a lack of new recruits.
“The blame game must stop now,” Campbell said. “If I hear one more policeman complain about the army or vice versa, I will pull my advisers immediately. It’s over. You’re Afghans first. Work together.”
Soldiers and police officers on the front lines say they face an enemy that is well trained and equipped with heavy artillery and machine guns, rockets and mortars — and a seemingly endless supply of ammunition. Taliban snipers now have night-vision scopes on their rifles. And as they have overrun bases, the militants have seized an arsenal of U.S. weaponry provided to the Afghans.
Nabil said the insurgents have night-vision goggles and have captured more than 45 Humvees in Helmand. They also have Russian-made ZSU antiaircraft guns with night capability, an abundant supply of mortars and a communications network that is difficult to infiltrate.
U.S. Special Operations troops arrived in early November at an empty school in Chanjar, a front line about 15 miles west of the provincial capital. The walls of the compound bore the impact of shells the size of baseballs. A group of soldiers and police officers was stationed there. Taliban militants were in houses less than 20 yards away.
“The Americans told us that they wanted to push the Taliban back,” recalled Sgt. Abdul Mohamad. “They were here to give coordinates for an airstrike.”
But the Taliban fired a mortar, the men said, wounding one of the Americans. The Americans quickly left the area, in Nad Ali district, with their injured comrade.
Lawhorn, the U.S. military spokesman, confirmed that a U.S. coalition member was injured in the district Nov. 4.
Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the U.S. military’s top spokesman, said in an interview that U.S. troops were adhering to their limited mandate of “train, advise and assist” and that their Afghan counterparts were taking the lead.
But Afghans, including senior military officials, no longer even pretend that they can fight the Taliban effectively on their own.
“When the foreigners were here, we had plenty of facilities and equipment,” said 1st Lt. Naseer Ahmad Sahel, 30, a civil-order police company commander who was wounded last month in a firefight in Marja. “There were 100 cameras overlooking Marja alone.”
Faqir, the commander of the 215th Corps, said, “We don’t have the air support that we should have.”
As the fighting intensifies, the stakes are growing higher for the United States in its longest war. “I will not allow Helmand to fall,” Campbell told the Afghan officials in the recent meeting with the Afghan National Security Council. “But I can’t make you fight. You’ve got to want it more than we do.”
Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.