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.
"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.
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."
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.
"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."