Four years ago, the Americans claimed victory over the Taleban. But in the past year, the fighting has intensified, producing the worst casualty figures since 2001.
By Kate Clark
File On 4, BBC Radio 4
As a large deployment of British troops arrives in the country, BBC reporter Kate Clark investigates the security situation.
The Taleban fighter I met in Zabul agreed to speak if I did not reveal his identity. He says he is 28, although like most Afghans who have lived a hard life, he looks much older.
He has a small frame and a gallows humour. He laughs as he describes facing the most powerful army in the world.
"I'm fighting with a Kalashnikov and an RPG - a rocket propelled grenade launcher," he said. "I'm not trying to take over the country. I am just trying to earn my salary."
This fighter joined the jihad for cash.
"They gave me a salary, new clothes, shoes, a motorbike and a Kalashnikov rifle. I had to go and fight where they told me for seven or eight days a month."
This was a man who, when the Taleban were in power, fled to Pakistan to avoid conscription. There he worked in the notoriously dangerous coal mines for the equivalent of $2 a day.
After the fall of the Taleban, he returned to scratch out a living on the family plot. When he was offered cash to fight - $300 to join and $150 a month - he took the chance.
With the money, he has rebuilt the family home, got his brother married and fed his family. He has never told anyone that he fights for money, particularly the villagers who support the insurgents, whether willingly or unwillingly.
"I was very famous for getting food from the people," he said.
"Sometimes I'd say, 'Bring me some eggs!' Nobody would say anything, they were too afraid.
"If they didn't give us food, we'd beat them with our guns. I'd order them around, 'We are mujahideen and you're not giving us food!' I'd say. 'You have to give it to us. We're doing this for God Almighty.'"
Zabul is one of the poorest provinces in the country. There are no international aid agencies working here.
Violence in Afghanistan has risen
The head of an Afghan NGO said he believed 60-70 % of those fighting were economically motivated, while 10% were real believers, ideologically motivated jihadis who wanted to bring back the Islamic emirate of the Taleban.
The rest, he said, were men who had started fighting after suffering abuses, either at the hands of US forces or more commonly by Afghan police and provincial officials.
This assessment tied in with what File on 4 discovered elsewhere in the south. Commanders who seized power after the fall of the Taleban in 2001 have been allowed to abuse the civilian population ever since.
Mohammed Ibrahim Sahdat, a lawyer from the Human Rights Commission for Afghanistan, said the biggest problem in his province, Helmand, was false arrests.
"Mainly people are arrested for money, but not always," he said.
He gives the example of a 30-year-old detainee whose home was near the scene of an explosion and who was accused of having ordered it.
"If something happens, the police have to arrest someone," Sahdat said.
"Jalaludin was landless, a poor man, with no influence and that's why he was arrested. The interesting point is that the person who detained him is now an MP in Kabul."
Sahdat said that Jalaludin was hung by his feet for 10 hours, beaten and given electric shock treatment. Now released, he is receiving medical treatment in Pakistan.
The European Union has also documented testimony of abuse, false imprisonment and torture in Helmand.
An elder who told me about the arrest of a youth in his village said times were so bad, many people longed for the return of the Taleban, not because they were religious, but because at least there was security then.
The bad administration, he said was helping the insurgents.
"People want a government that can guarantee their security and respects their religion and their families and that's why they wish the Taleban would come back."
Helmandis finally have a new governor with a good reputation.
In Zabul, a non-corrupt governor was appointed a year ago. Haji Arman has already sacked hundreds of people.
"Where there were militia, I put in good police chiefs and district governors," he said.
For the first time in four years, the UN is now quietly optimistic about the province, and the British say it is a model they hope Helmand will follow.
File On 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 28 February, 2006 at 2000 GMT and repeated on Sunday 5 March, 2005 at 1700 GMT.
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