Spring becomes Babaji, a rural suburb of Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand. Light-green wheat fields grow waist-high, and narrow irrigation canals run almost clear. “It’s beautiful,” I told Mohammad Sahi, 21, an officer in the Afghan national police, as we stood on a sagging thatched roof in the afternoon sun.
Mr. Sahi smiled, leaning on a sandbagged lookout. With his finger he drew a semicircle across the fields ahead. “No man’s land,” he said. Pointing to a cluster of abandoned houses a mile to the northwest, he said, “Taliban.” To another mass of houses north: “Taliban.” Then east, toward a dense tree line. He shrugged. “Maybe Taliban.”
Babaji, a string of mud villages and shops now largely abandoned by civilians, has been a battlefield for months. I visited a couple of weeks ago, at the end of the poppy harvest, a major source of income for the Taliban. It was also the time of year when spring fighting usually resumes.
But this winter the Taliban gave little pause. In October the United Nations estimated that the insurgency had spread to more territory nationwide than at any time since 2001. Today, the Taliban control or contest all but three of Helmand’s 14 districts.
Some Afghan officials pretend that the government has a handle on the situation. Maj. Gen. M. Moein Faqir, the top army commander in Helmand, recently described some of these losses as “unimportant.” In a speech at the Atlantic Council, in Washington, in March, the country’s first lady, Rula Ghani, challenged the notion that the “Taliban are winning.”
“Really?” she said. “Then why is it that we keep hearing about the same 100 meters being lost and regained in Helmand every other week or month?”
They shouldn’t be so dismissive. Afghanistan’s national security forces, comprising primarily soldiers and national policemen, number about 320,000, often young and uneducated men who were drawn in by the dearth of other jobs and the difficulty of imagining a life that doesn’t involve fighting. Since the end of NATO’s combat mission in late 2014, it is they who have been leading the war against the Taliban.
The ability of these men to subdue the insurgency is integral to maintaining Afghanistan’s stability and to keeping Afghans from emigrating. Their success is also critical for the United States — which has spent more than $60 billion to train and equip them — if it hopes to claim some measure of accomplishment when it withdraws its last 9,800 troops from Afghanistan.
In Babaji that recent Friday evening, as the light drained from the sky, more police officers scaled a rickety ladder to join Mr. Sahi and me on the thatched roof. We huddled behind sandbags. Conversation veered from the crude (women’s breasts) to the ordinary (stewed okra for dinner) to the philosophical (they were proud to fight for their country).
One officer, wearing a T-shirt striped like an Afghan flag, stood on top of sandbags, trying to find phone reception to call home. “How are you?” he bellowed into an old Nokia while the others giggled at his brazen stupidity.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting killed, standing up there?” I asked him.
“It’s God’s will. I can die anywhere,” he said, as he gave up on the call, jumped down and lit another cigarette.
As of last September, about 30 percent of Afghanistan’s soldiers and more than half of its police officers were stationed at hundreds of outposts and checkpoints in remote areas throughout the country. As in Babaji, these sites often consist of little more than a building and a few sandbags.
United States military officials estimate that 5,500 Afghan security force members were killed in 2015, far more than the number of foreign troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001. More than 36,000 police officers, who often have to fight like soldiers but with less training and for inferior pay, are believed to have deserted last year. That’s almost one-quarter of the entire police force.
The next day we set out a few miles west of Babaji, to a police base in Chah-e Anjir, a cluster of filthy buildings around a small garden. Its commander, First Lieutenant Haji Mahboub, a hulking man with a Freddie Mercury mustache, greeted us with tea and dishes of peeled cucumber.
We talked about a recent suicide attack in Kabul that killed more than 60 people. President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that the attack “clearly shows the enemy’s defeat,” and Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the United States commander in Afghanistan, called it evidence of the Taliban’s “weakness.”
“What do they know about fighting?” First Lieutenant Mahboub scoffed. “They sit in Kabul.”
He offered to take us to the front line. Soon we were trudging a narrow path and snaking through overgrown fields, past unsmiling children. After 10 minutes we reached an outpost: an abandoned house protected by a wall that crumbled to the touch.
“I haven’t seen my family in six years” were the first words out of the outpost’s commander, Abdul Malik — thin, with sunken eyes, clothed in a grubby dark-green shalwar kameez. In the past month, the Taliban had killed three of his 18 men and wounded seven. If nothing was done, the base would be overrun in a matter of weeks, he said. Stronger towers, better equipment and more men were needed. But really, he said, the post should be abandoned.
First Lieutenant Malik took me to a sniper room, where a bicycle wheel partly plugged a gaping hole in the ceiling. Two weeks earlier, the Taliban had fired a rocket. The force blew one of First Lieutenant Malik’s men a clear 16 feet into the courtyard, taking part of the roof with him.
A few of us sat in a circle. The officers had no tea, no fresh water. They eyed the two unopened boxes of dates the photographer Andrew Quilty and I had brought with us. I asked if there were any medical supplies. Only back at the base, they said. When a man was wounded at night, the others waited until morning to transport him, to minimize the risks of being ambushed. “I know how to do a tourniquet,” said one officer.
Later that day, we visited another outpost nearby. Inside one building, moldy bread was stacked in a corner. Outside, in a garden with fruit trees, a few soldiers were playing the dice game ludo in the fading late afternoon light. One hopped up to show off a fresh bullet wound on his lower back. A Taliban sniper had struck him as he was crossing the road ahead.
Now we were to cross that road ourselves. Run, someone suggested, don’t walk. One by one, we skittered across it, the Afghan officers pausing to spray bullets in the general direction of the Taliban positions. We went through a field and entered the courtyard of an abandoned school. About 20 soldiers suddenly spilled out of the main building.
Among them was Gholam Nadi, who motioned to me to look through a sniper hole in a wall. About 50 meters away, hoisted up high, two large white Taliban flags flapped in the afternoon breeze. “We want to attack them,” Mr. Nadi said.
But holding up his machine gun, he shook his head. “Look at this,” he complained. “It’s not even good enough to be fired at a wedding party.”
Danielle Moylan is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan.