Some of the names are probably familiar: Sangin, Gereshk, Kajaki, Garmsir, Nawzad. They are the most violent districts in Afghanistan's most violent province, Helmand, and the battles that British and American soldiers fought there have already become military folklore, although what's happened since is rarely mentioned: All of them are now back under Taliban control, and the insurgents now control more territory than they have at any point since being overthrown in 2001.
When I visited Helmand last November, only Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, had yet to fall, but it was under constant attack from all sides. Suicide bombs and IED strikes were common, and morale among the Afghan National Security Forces was low. Casualties, desertions, and defections are unsustainably high. Only an increased number of US airstrikes and Special Forces operations, conducted almost entirely in secret, are preventing absolute catastrophe. This is the result of more than 15 years of British and American war and almost a trillion dollars spent.
The Taliban resurgence was underway even before the US handed security to the poorly equipped and often badly behaved Afghan National Security Forces. Preventing the government forces' collapse has meant a huge increase in airstrikes. All of these factors have led to a continuous rise in civilian casualties. More than 31,000 Afghan civilians have been killed so far; 1.2 million are now internally displaced, and the country is second only to Syria in producing refugees. Almost half the country is controlled or contested by the Taliban, and ISIS has a small presence close to the border with Pakistan.
Foreign and military leaders still churn out sunny press releases about what tomorrow will bring, but they do so from behind the high walls that have become a dominant feature of the capital city, Kabul. Their helicopters now rumble constantly overhead, ferrying embassy staff from the airport to their offices. The only Afghan ground they ever set foot on is the tarmac between their plane and helicopter.
Almost every Afghan I know has either fled—legally or by paying smugglers—or has a plan to flee, ready to be put into action at short notice. Many of those who can afford it have already moved their families to Dubai, Europe, or the US. For the rest, and there are many who can't afford smuggler's fees or the soul-destroying bureaucracy that may one day lead to a visa, this summer will almost certainly be grim. The worsening security situation means that our grand promises of justice, education, women's rights, and an end to corruption look as far away as ever.
Ben Anderson is a correspondent for VICE on HBO. Check out his episode, "Taliban Resurgence," on HBO NOW. You can see more of Frederick Paxton's photography on his Instagram.