An elite new Taliban force is proving its strength in the strategic southern province of Helmand, pointing to the insurgents’ ability to refine their battlefield techniques to match Afghanistan‘s increasingly professional national army.

The Taliban regard Helmand as their heartland. They share Pashtun ethnicity with its residents and the province’s vast opium output has helped fund the war against the government in Kabul, now in its fifteenth year.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have taken huge swaths of the province and now they appear to be closing in on the capital, Lashkar Gah.

Afghan officials in Helmand say the army is facing an insurgent fighting force that is better-organized and more skilled than ever. They say the Taliban have been sending men into the fight who appear to be members of a commando-like unit, believed to consist of several hundred elite fighters.