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The province is strategically important because of massive poppy production, which is financing the insurgency and fueling criminal activity.

While some success has been achieved at getting farmers to plant substitute crops, Helmand is still one of Afghanistan’s largest opium-producing provinces, often blamed on anti-government sentiment and collusion between corrupt government officials and the Taliban.

The NATO-led coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), claims there are tangible gains against the Taliban in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province.

“While insurgent activity remains problematic in several districts, primarily in northern Helmand and western Kandahar, data from the battle space shows a marked decrease in overall enemy activity,” ISAF spokesman Jamie Graybeal said recently.

Despite a drop of 8 percent in militant attacks from January to October compared to the same period last year, Helmand and neighboring Nimroz province accounted for 32 percent of all such attacks reported across the country from October 2011 to October this year, according to ISAF.

Ryan Evans, a research fellow at the U.S.-based Center for National Policy, called Helmand the “most dangerous and violent” of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

“From 2010 to early 2012, one of five ISAF soldiers was killed in this one province – Helmand. And the province has since taken more lives and limbs than any other province,” said Mr. Evans, who worked with U.S. and British troops in Helmand during 2010 and 2011.