The US leadership in Helmand has, despite frustrations, shrugged and is pressing forward with the Helmand strategy despite a lack of a decisive victory over the Taliban that once controlled the region (and are heckling US forces now).
The primary thrust of this effort involves training local security forces to take over as the US leaves. If the Taliban have indeed largely fled the areas they once controlled, a more trained Afghan force will make it significantly more difficult for the Taliban to simply show up and start running the show again. They will certainly be prey to the Afghan Taliban's advanced insurgent tactics, but the Taliban will certainly not simply be able to walk in, and any overwhelming shows of force by a Taliban offensive will attract enough American attention that it might
spell disaster. Nonetheless, the US must make sure that the Afghan soldiers trained in this initiative are confident, bold, and hard-nosed, lest they crack to the Taliban's rather infamous tactics (usually involving public listings of targets and private letters to homes threatening torture and death of family members, followed by execution of said threats).
But the US is making further progress that is likely to help its position in Helmand. While Pashtuns of the region generally growl at Western occupation, they have already seen some improvements after less than two months: bazaars and other commerce, as well as schools (especially for girls) have re-opened, and bringing some hope for increased prosperity in a region that's been held back.
If the Taliban return to find a largely unsupportive populous, Afghan and US security forces should have little trouble in driving them back out--they will not be able to become as entrenched and solidified as they once were. Furthermore, as long as US forces stay, their lives may become increasingly easier: as normal fence-sitting Pashtuns see that life might just be better under Kabul's rule, they are less likely to willingly give it all up for return of the harsh Talibani theocracy; and thus, they may be more willing to deliver information to the US.
Therefore, such trust-building measures may lead to the clues the US needs to find hidden Talibani troops in Helmand. Furthermore, intelligence from locals may allow US troops to evade roadside bombs and other improvised insurgent attacks. In particular, massive US presence means the Taliban are unlikely to find out who leaked information--and if they do, the US can protect the informants--which means information leaks are likely to increase (especially in return for monetary incentives the US has set up). Increased intelligence will mean fewer deaths and a longer stay for US troops in Helmand--and the longer they stay, the better the long-term security situation will get, no matter how many Taliban are still around.
Finally, a secure Helmand will mean that the US can start launching offensive operations from the area. Once this is ready, Pakistan should be able to effectively launch attacks into Waziristan (as Taliban will not quite so easily be able to get support from their brethren in Afghanistan, nor so easily retreat there). My personal bet is that the Helmand Taliban managed to get across the border while the US/UK invasion force was spooling up (and world media made a big deal out of the future operation. Why this was not protected intelligence, I will never know). It is possible that with US support, the Pakistani attack into Waziristan may fray the Taliban, and not simply give them the opportunity to retreat to bases across the border. If the US can secure Helmand long enough before it leaves, it should be able to support such an operation--and if my guess about the location of formerly-Helmand Taliban is right, the Waziristan operation should, within some months' time, make the situation in Helmand quite a bit more secure.
This, as usual, sounds rather optimistic. But over-arching US/Pakistani strategy is even less-publicized than US/Iraqi stragegy; and if I can think of it, surely General Petraeus can think of something at least as clever. Despite frustrations in trying to find and destroy the hardcore Taliban, prospects for US operations in Helmand look a fair bit better than they did a week ago, and are likely to improve.
(Images courtesy of Jack Hill/ The Times Online)