Battle for Kandahar: If Afghan Gov't Doesn't Improve, 'We're Going to Lose'

Gone are the burned-out trucks that used to litter this poppy-filled district of Kandahar. Gone are the bribes the former district governor used to extract from local farmers. Gone, too, are the bombs on the main highway, the beatings at the local jail, even some of the fear that used to prevent local elders from working with U.S. troops.

Maiwand district, just west of Kandahar City, has improved dramatically in the past year since the United States sent a battalion of soldiers here, enough to bring a shaky peace and stand up a weak government.

But U.S. commanders know their successes are fragile. As their tour comes to a close, they admit that the local government is frail and under-resourced. And, in some areas, the Taliban still roam freely at night, threatening the local population.

The commanders warn that the relatively slow pace of achievement -- in bringing both governance and security -- should be heeded by their higher-ups, who have to show quick progress as they send thousands of additional troops to Kandahar as part of the largest campaign of the war.

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"We've set a good foundation, but if we left tomorrow, it would take three weeks for all of it to come undone," says Capt. Casey Thoreen, the popular company commander based in Maiwand's district headquarters.

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If his Blackwatch company abandoned its base, which is adjacent to a new U.S.-funded police and government complex, the Afghan Army soldiers would go into hiding and the district governor would drive "as fast as possible" to the relative safety of Kandahar City, he says.

"And the only reason it would take that long," the West Point graduate says with a sigh, "is because it would take a week for everyone to notice we left."

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Commanders say Thoreen, the self-proclaimed son of "ex-hippies from Seattle," is too hard on himself. They heap praise on the 30-year-old for nurturing the district governor, Obaidullah Bawari, from a virtually absent leader to someone known across the district.

Taliban Filled the Void

"We have established persistent security, we have lots of projects, lots of work programs and the government has achieved really a certain amount of credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the populace," says Lt. Col. Jeffry French, the commander of the 2nd battalion of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is responsible for Maiwand. "Casey deserves a lot of credit for that."

But Thoreen's fears reflect an even more fundamental lesson for the United States in Kandahar. The thousands of troops pouring into these districts this summer will fail to provide long-term protection to the population unless they can transform anemic local government structures into legitimate bodies that oversee effective police, provide development projects and are perceived to be equals with U.S. commanders.

"For us to be successful here, people have to believe in their government," Thoreen says. "To drive that wedge between the people and the Taliban, they need to have faith in their government."

Or, as a senior military official who has helped plan the Kandahar campaign puts it: If there's a lack of good governance in Kandahar, "We're going to lose."

'It's All about Governance'

Blackwatch Company arrived at the district headquarters in Combat Outpost Rath -- named after a soldier who died in the area -- in September. Bawari, the district governor, was spending most of his time in Kandahar City, about 60 miles away. When he was in the district, he rarely ventured out, and would say to anyone who asked him that his job was to "receive visitors," if he had any.

The vacuum created by the lack of political leadership, as well as a dearth of U.S. troops, empowered the Taliban.

"When we got here, the government was providing absolutely nothing," Thoreen says. "The Taliban were providing more than the government. And the government was associated with corruption and police brutality."

As in many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban provided a speedy justice system. The government provided no justice system at all. Maiwand residents became convinced that local government officials were looking after only themselves.

"Eight years have passed but we still don't trust this government," Ali Mohammad says as he pumps gas into containers in the back of his station wagon. "Eight years have passed but they are still after money to put in their pockets."

Blackwatch Company was given its assignment: Improve and mentor Bawari and, at the same time, find and empower local village and tribal elders. If the elders were empowered, they could help keep out the Taliban. And if they recognized Bawari's authority, the Americans might just succeed at restoring a local, culturally accepted system of justice that the Taliban had helped destroy.

"The Taliban is not only counter-government," argues a senior officer in Maiwand who asked not to be identified. "They've killed 24 tribal leaders. The Taliban is also counter-cultural."

The system that the Taliban has helped destroy revolves around the shura, a meeting of tribal elders. In Maiwand, the shuras are led by Bawari inside the new district center.

In a recent shura, about 60 tribal elders showed up to complain to the visiting Kandahar provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa. The room was packed despite recent attempts by the Taliban to threaten leaders who attend the shura.

"Before, we used to invite district officials and they would never come because they'd be killed if they did," says a separate senior military officer who requested anonymity.

Little Help From Kabul

The shuras are now so popular there are two per week, forcing the the U.S. soldiers who sometimes provide security outside to turn people away at the door, Thoreen says.

Such community participation facilitates development, assistance and education projects that the United States needs in order to bring long-term security to the area.

"Now we provide tangible services," Thoreen says. "It's all about governance. Governance supports security, and it creates development."

But Thoreen and Bawari know it's not enough for the Americans to support the local government. The local government must be self-sustaining. It must get its support from the Afghan government, not U.S.

Bawari has no staff except a personal assistant and no budget except his monthly $400 salary.

"We're doing a good job with what little we have," Bawari says.

But the day when Kandahar City and Kabul can support someone such as Bawari is apparently a long way away. That was made clear when Bawari, along with the Maiwand police chief and the local head of the equivalent of the FBI, had the chance to ask the provincial governor for help in a private meeting.

Bawari and his colleagues deluged Governor Wesa for higher police salaries, more judges and prosecutors, and more development money.

Wesa shrugged his shoulders.

He said where there was once 115 prosecutors in Kandahar City. There are now 15. Where there were once hundreds of judges, there are now only 20 -- for 16,000 cases. He had no money, little staff and nothing to offer the Maiwand officials.

""The people of Maiwand may think that we have everything in Kandahar City," Wesa told them. "But we don't have anything."

Bawari and his colleagues left the meeting stunned.

Feeling the Wrath of President Karzai's Brother

Not only have Maiwand officials felt abandoned by their bosses in Kandahar City and Kabul. Sometimes, they've been offended by them.

When one of Maiwand's most respected tribal elders traveled to Kandahar, he ran straight into the man who U.S. officials say is much more powerful than Wesa: Ahmed Wali Karzai, the provincial council chairman and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother.

The tribal elder, Mohammad Yusuf, was invited to a meeting led by Hamid Karzai about the Kandahar campaign. Yusuf, according to U.S. officials, stood up and complained about security convoys that travel through Maiwand and sometimes indiscriminately shot into the local villages.

As Yusuf spoke, Ahmed Wali Karzai stood up and started yelling at Yusuf, telling him to sit down and calling him a "Taliban sympathizer," according to an American military official who wished to remain anonymous.

Yusuf returned to Maiwand even more upset with the Kandahar and Kabul governments. The incident hurt the efforts made by Thoreen's company to convince local elders to support the government.

Later, speaking of the meeting, French, the battalion commander, would say only that Yusuf was "not shown the respect he deserved."

Thoreen hopes his company's efforts will set the groundwork for the replacement troops arriving in Maiwand soon.

He worries, though, that as the district government improves and the tribal elders find their voice, the Taliban will launch more violent attacks. Insurgents have planted more roadside bombs in recent weeks, he says, although Afghan soldiers and police officers have found all of them.

But the biggest challenge facing the incoming surge of troops will not be violent confrontation. In general, the Taliban usually flee an area temporarily when they see overwhelming firepower. The largest challenge will be to continue to build a still fragile government, continue to convince tribal elders that they are safe enough to rebuild local systems of justice that the Taliban intimidated and destroyed.

"It's the void in local leadership that pushes people to choose the Taliban," Thoreen says. "If we show the governments in the district centers as the main sources of development, then all the districts will come toward the center of Kandahar City, and get stronger."

That is the only way the Kandahar campaign will be successful, U.S. officials say.

As one senior military official put it,, "Whether we win or lose here depends on the government."