Pir Mahmad, an officer in the Afghan national police, was on his way to Sangin, in southwestern Afghanistan, last month when he found himself fighting for his life. He was traveling in a police convoy of five dilapidated pickup trucks armed with a modest arsenal of rocket launchers and AK-47s. As the patrol neared Sangin, Mahmad, 22, heard gunshots. He looked up to see that the man riding next to him was dead. Soon they were surrounded by Taliban guerrillas who had charged from the hilltops shouting "Allahu akbar." Five policemen were killed before commanders called in air support and backup from Afghan army soldiers and U.S. commandos. Later that day, at a triage center in nearby Gereshk, Mahmad pulls up a sleeve to show where a bullet grazed his arm. In four years' policing one of the country's most volatile regions, he says, "I have never seen fighting like this."
This is a side of Afghanistan that George W. Bush didn't see last week. Visiting the country for the first time, Bush spent five hours in the capital, Kabul, and hailed Afghanistan's progress since the ouster of the Taliban more than four years ago. The country has made strides: it has an elected government, newly paved roads, more children in school, the appearance of a few shopping centers in Kabul. But the improvements in the lives of many Afghans are tempered by the country's persistent insecurity, which is fueled by a rampant drug trade and a Taliban-led insurgency growing more brazen, sophisticated and lethal. More than 1,600 Afghans and 99 U.S. soldiers were killed in combat last year, the bloodiest period since the fall of the Taliban. Since the beginning of 2006, eight more Americans have died, including one last week. Few believe the fighting is likely to subside. Lieut. General Michael Maples, who heads the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress last week that "insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001."
The violence is surging at a time when the U.S. military is hoping to draw down its 19,000-member force in Afghanistan and turn over responsibility for much of the troubled south to NATO forces. Washington also hopes the newly trained Afghan army, which has 35,000 troops, will assume a greater role. But in places like Helmand province, where few Afghan or foreign troops were stationed, the main burden of fending off the insurgents has fallen to an Afghan police force that is poorly trained and often overmatched by the Taliban. Says Sam Zia-Zarifi, research director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division: "They are totally ill prepared for what they are going to face."
When TIME visited one police unit in Helmand last month, the shortcomings were obvious. A number of policemen said they hadn't been paid in a year. Most did not have uniforms. Some had received a few weeks of training, others none at all. Though Taliban militants in the area have murdered aid workers and local politicians, torched schools and menaced teachers, the police say the U.S. has paid the area scant attention, essentially ceding territory to the insurgents. Haji Mosa Jan, the Gereshk district commander, says, "We used to patrol with one or two men" in Sangin, but now it's too dangerous to patrol at all. "We thought the coalition forces were here to fight terrorists," says one of Jan's deputies, "but it seems like we get very little support."