U.S. Army Capt. Casey Thoreen talking to "village elders" before a US-initiated "shura" begins in the Maiwand district of Khandahar Province. To the locals, the AP writes, "he is the `King of Maiwand' district, testimony to the fact that without the resources the young captain and others like him provide, local government in much of insurgency-ravaged southern Afghanistan could not function at all." It's testimony to some other things, too. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
From the AP, "US Army captain beomcs`king' in Afghanistan":
HUTAL, Afghanistan — In the U.S. Army, Casey Thoreen is just a 30-year-old captain. Around here, he's known as the "King of Maiwand" district — testimony to the fact that without the young captain and a fat international wallet, local government here as in much of the insurgency-ravaged south could not function at all.
Setting up effective governments at the district level is key to U.S. strategy. U.S. officials hope that providing basic services will draw support away from the Taliban, especially here in the Islamist group's heartland of Kandahar province.
When they wish upon a star ....
But in this dusty farming community 40 miles (60 kilometers) west of Kandahar, Thoreen has discovered that bolstering the authority of a district governor, who relies on him almost completely for financial resources and credibility, is a delicate balancing act. ...
"We are putting a big gamble on this," Thoreen said. "Any of this stuff we're doing here, not just at our level but the $800 billion we have spent so far in the country, is contingent on the government being effective." ...
Just as in Iraq, the success of "the surge" was contingent on Iraqi behaviors beyond US control, so, too, in Afghanistan the success of the surge is contingent on Afghan behaviors beyond US control. And that's considered a strategy.
"Everything you see here is from the coalition forces," said Bawari, sweeping his hand toward the center of the district capital, Hutal, where the Army has paid for a new government headquarters, an agricultural center and various other projects.
It's a picture repeated across the country, including in the ethnic Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan, where opposition to the government and support for the Taliban run deep.The troops, who live in a small base in the middle of Hutal, have tried to boost Bawari's standing by encouraging him to take credit for development projects the U.S. military funded. They have also set up a series of traditional meetings, known as shuras, with tribal elders in an attempt to enlist their support.
Chapter 3, Section 2 of Counterinsurgency (COIN) Mumbojumbo: Please, pretty please, support us. We'll give you lots of stuff if you do. (Or even if you don't.)
"Through the district leader and us, the elders are involved in laying out the ideas for these projects and actually implementing them," Thoreen said. "All that has enhanced and empowered the district leader as well."
Chapter 4, Section 1 of COIN Mumbojumbo: We ask them what they want, they tell us what they want, we give them what they want. Works great until:
But the dynamic gets more complicated when Thoreen and the district governor disagree on an issue.
That presents the captain with the difficult choice: either overrule Bawari and damage his authority or give in and accept a decision he believes is bad for the mission.
Bawari is not on the side of "the mission," and the captain intuitively enough know it.
Such a situation arose at a recent shura when 25 farmers showed up to demand the return of more than 300 pounds (135 kilograms) of opium that Special Forces had seized from a car.
Thoreen refused to return the opium or compensate them for it, saying U.S. forces have been clear that while they will not seize drugs from individual farmers, they will target smugglers.
He sidelined Bawari during the debate because he knew the district governor disagreed with him and wanted to return the opium.
"I knew he would go that way in the shura if I opened it up to him, so I intentionally did not ask his opinion on it," said Thoreen.
Afterward, Bawari complained that the captain's decision damaged his credibility.
"The coalition forces didn't give the farmers a good answer and they walked away angry with us," he said.
A bad day for COIN mumbojumbo.
But Thoreen said there have been other times when he has caved to the district governor's wishes, including agreeing to release three insurgents who had been caught with weapons just before they were about to attack a NATO supply convoy.
He freed them after significant pressure from Bawari and a large number of tribal elders, who promised to prevent the men from engaging in future insurgent activity.
"It may not have been the greatest thing to do since we arrested one of the guys again doing something similar, but we created value in the district leader for the people through that decision," Thoreen said.
That's looking at the glass half-full for you. But if, COIN-speaking, this counted as a partial success, I wonder why didn't the captain didn't throw back the opium as well? It could be because Bawari and tribal elders carry more weight than 25 angry farmers. But think about the implications: The local leaders -- the people we're supposed to be empowering for good (or should I say "good") -- use their power over us to spring deadly insurgents who tried to kill us again. But that's at least partly ok, because, as the captain puts it, "we created value in the district leader" with that release decision. Problem is, the "value" here, I'm very sorry to say, is the district leader's ability to manipulate us, "king" or no "king." That's what happens when COIN rules the day.
The district governor certainly appreciates Thoreen's efforts and says he is worried about what will happen when the captain leaves this summer with the rest of the 5th Stryker Brigade.
"We need the next person who comes to be exactly like Capt. Thoreen, patient and very smart," said Bawari.
Not to mention very generous.
"If we get that kind of person, we won't have any problems."
Thoreen is flattered by the compliment, but adds a word of caution.
"I think that's all right as long as other people don't see that and think he's dependent on me," Thoreen said.
Dependent? It's called playing Uncle Sam like a song.