A well-trained and disciplined Afghan force of police and soldiers is considered the fragile government's best hope of keeping power against the Taliban, and is central to the NATO strategy of curbing violence in this country.
But the training effort has been drastically slowed by rampant corruption, widespread illiteracy, vanishing supplies, lack of discipline _ and the added burden of unifying a force made up of a patchwork of often hostile ethnic groups.
At the same time, the police and the Afghan army face a growing insurgency whose determination was evident in last weekend's battle in Nuristan province, when hundreds of militants stormed an outpost, killing eight American troops and capturing about 20 Afghan police and soldiers.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan to double the number of Afghan security forces from about 200,000 to about 400,000 hinges on units like the 82nd's 4th Brigade Combat Team, whose paratroopers in Lashkar Gah are struggling to instill discipline in the local men serving as police reserves.
Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is one of the front lines against the Taliban. U.S. and British forces have struggled to hold the region and struggled even more to build up infrastructure that will let them leave it in Afghan hands. The Afghan forces' disarray was unwelcome news.
Meeting with the Afghan commanders, Capt. Adam Armstrong shut the door for privacy, leaned his lanky frame over in his chair and fixed his gaze across the desk.
"We've known about these problems, but the question is how are we going to fix it. We must be honest with each other. These are things that are holding the provincial reserve back," Armstrong, a West Point graduate from Chardon, Ohio, told the unit's commanders. "The first thing is discipline."
One Afghan commander, Lt. Col. Muhammad, a frail man with a thick gray beard, took notes stoically. The others nodded in agreement, then shifted their attention to their cell phones.
"Thank you from the core of my heart," Muhammad said. "We will definitely work together, hand-in-hand, to fix these problems."
The lack of readiness on the part of the police and soldiers should be expected from any new force, said Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, the chief spokesman for the international forces in Afghanistan.
"From a systemic perspective, it shows you these are very young soldiers," he said.
Young or not, in Helmand they will be key.
Tremblay said U.S. and British forces are holding a narrow 90 mile (150 kilometers)-long strip of the Helmand River valley and gradually expanding that safety net outward. The Afghan government in Kabul is dispatching district chiefs in areas once firmly in the Taliban's grip, and residents are slowly getting services including electricity and clean water.
These are the gains that a local police force must safeguard, even as officers fend off the Taliban violence that targets them as much as international forces.
"We have a police force that is sacrificing six to 10 lives every day," said the Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, Zemarai Bashary.
Only 24 of 559 Afghan police units are considered ready to operate without international help, according to the most recent quarterly report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, who is tasked by Congress to oversee rebuilding. The situation is better for the Afghan army: 47 of 123 units are able to operate independently, the July report said.
A report released Thursday paints an equally grim picture, describing the repeated hiring and sometimes promotion of officers previously dismissed for theft or corruption, of suppies being hoarded before they ever reach their destination "for fear that no more would follow" and soldiers and police having their pay extorted by their own officers.
The U.S. Inspector General's report said the problem of corruption and mismanagement "is not unique to the 'rank and file,' but starts at the highest levels" of the Defense Ministry and top military planners.
An apparent lack of discipline has even led to violence between coalition forces and Afghans, most recently on Friday when an Afghan policeman on patrol with U.S. soldiers opened fire on the Americans, killing two of them before fleeing.
The report called for more U.S. trainers and more money, but many are also hoping for a new approach _ one that focuses more heavily on protecting people from crime and building roads, schools and providing other services.
"New troops are in place, there are better trainers for Afghan forces, you are bringing more aid workers into the field," said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who advised U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Kabul this summer. "This won't have the desired effect unless we make it not only part of a coherent strategy but one that actually reaches out into the field, that actually is effective at the local level."
In Lashkar Gah, Armstrong is counting on the company's sergeants to show the Afghans the way. Sgt. 1st Class Roy Frazier, who has been in the military for 15 years and has trained with troops from around the world, sees the Afghan police in the same light as new privates.
"We're coming in here and we want them to be free thinkers so that they can defend themselves against their enemies," said Frazier, 35, from Sidney, Montana. "We're basically doing this to get out of here."
Hinnant reported from Kabul.