Helmand "is symbolic because it's the drug center and it's the Taliban center," says regional analyst Ahmed Rashid. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, hails from the province. So does most of the world's illicit poppy crop that makes up one of the funding streams for the insurgency.
On the other hand, Helmand remains somewhat exceptional from the wider war effort, and progress from the concentrated effort there may not be easily replicated in other parts of the country. The dispatch of 10,000 Marines there, with an additional 9,000 troops still arriving as part of US President Barack Obama's surge, has allowed US commanders there to continue pursuing the ambitious counterinsurgency – some would say "nationbuilding" – vision of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In other parts of the nation, the smaller concentrations of foreign forces have focused on Mr. Obama's scaled-back approach of protecting cities and training Afghan security forces.
Besides Marjah, a handful of other major pockets in Helmand remain, says Tremblay. And for the areas cleared, the Herculean task remains of bringing government and development to a region that has seen little of either for years.