For the past month, the Taliban have held control over most of Afghanistan's Helmand province, where the majority of the world's opium is grown — and as insurgent attacks intensify around the provincial capital, residents are blaming rampant government corruption for the rising militant threat.
At an international aid conference last week, Afghanistan's leaders raised $15 billion from their international backers and pledged to clamp down on graft. But corrupt officials have hollowed out the national security forces, selling weapons and even government buildings to the Taliban, and alienated local populations. One Afghan official said that Helmand residents were so angry at corruption that they were turning to the Taliban, despite memories of the extremist group's harsh rule.
Afghanistan is consistently rated by the corruption watchdog Transparency International as one of the world's most corrupt countries, along with Somalia and North Korea. "It is estimated that an eighth of all the money that goes to Afghanistan is lost to corruption," it said in a report released ahead of the aid conference.
The U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, who is charged with tracing billions of dollars of American aid, estimates that while the United States pays salaries for 320,000 Afghan soldiers and police nationwide, the actual number of troops is just 120,000. The remainder are so-called "ghost soldiers." Corrupt commanders claim salaries and benefits for soldiers and police who either don't exist, have agreed to hand over part of their pay in exchange for not going to work, or who have been killed in battle.
Of the 26,000 security force personnel officially assigned to Helmand, up to half are ghost soldiers, according to Sopko's most recent report.
Helmand is particularly afflicted by corruption, thanks in large part to its opium fields. The majority of the world's heroin originates in this southern province bordering Pakistan. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime last year valued the crop $3 billion a year, equivalent to around 20 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. It helps fund the Taliban insurgency, and local officials and military leaders profit from the industry too. They receive bribes to turn a blind eye, and sell their military equipment to cash-rich militants.
Local officials and residents say that corruption occurs at every level in the province and everything is for sale, from government jobs, to ammunition and weapons and state-owned buildings.
Across Helmand, soldiers and police regularly change sides and give up their vehicles and weapons rather than defend themselves against attack, said Attaullah, a member of the provincial council.
"Some sell their weapons, their ammunition, even in some cases their buildings, to the insurgents," said Attaullah, who like many Afghans has only one name. "Sometimes they sell the soldiers, too, along with their equipment."
A year ago, the government controlled 80 percent of the province. "Now, for at least the past month, more than 85 percent of Helmand territory is basically under the control of the Taliban and other terrorist groups," said Abdul Ahad Massomi, a former governor of Gereshk district, which has shifted between Taliban and government control for years.
The insurgents and other drug-trafficking groups have joined forces to push the government out of the opium trade, said a former central government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
The Taliban have full control of five of Helmand's 14 districts and are in effective control of eight others, where just small pockets of territory are still government-held.
The militants are now closing in on the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, with a spate of assaults and suicide attacks having killed dozens of people in recent weeks. The Taliban have been on the offensive in Helmand since the start of the fighting season in April, and the latest attacks on Lashkar Gah suggest a final push before the gunmen retreat for the winter.
The Taliban don't "want to take over the city, but they do want the government and the people to know that they have the ability to take over," the former central government official said. "It's about drugs, money and power."
Razia Bloch, a member of the provincial council, says each morning she fears the Taliban will take over Lashkar Gah and declare the province fully under their control. She said that the militants are so close that from the district governor's building the white Taliban flag can be seen flying, just a few kilometers away.
The fall of Helmand province would deal a heavy blow to U.S. and Afghan officials, who consistently issue assurances that it will never fall. It would also bring the militants closer to their real prize, neighboring Kandahar province, the base of their 1996-2001 government.
But not everyone in Lashkar Gah dreads the insurgent's presence. "The people are so disgusted with the government that now they are more inclined to support the Taliban," said the former governor Massomi. According to him, despite the Taliban's hard-line interpretation of Islamic law many people feel they are "not nearly as bad as the government."