Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, a semiliterate former warlord, has an autocratic style, a reputation for doling out government contracts to family and friends, and a personal fortune allegedly amassed via corruption and the opium trade.

Many in Afghanistan think he might also be the country's best hope for stability.

As the head of one of the country's most peaceful provinces, Mr. Shirzai has ensured that roads get built, opium poppies are plowed under, and the Taliban are held at bay.

That record in Nangarhar province in the country's east has made him a serious presidential contender. It has also brought him praise from the U.S., along with a visit last summer from then-Sen. Barack Obama, who the governor likes to joke is a member of his Pashtun tribe, the Barakzais, because of his first name.

Gov. Shirzai's rising profile is part of a broader shift in America's war-fighting strategy in Afghanistan. When the U.S. led the Afghanistan invasion force in 2001, it courted warlords such as Mr. Shirzai to stabilize the country quickly. But after ousting the Taliban, the U.S. began to rely more on Western-style technocrats in the central government run by President Hamid Karzai. The year of the invasion, the U.S. installed Mr. Shirzai as governor of Kandahar province, his home turf in the south. Three years later, he was removed when his warlord-like ways — such as allowing his personal gunmen to get into shootouts with the city's police force — became an embarrassment.

Now, Mr. Shirzai and a handful of other former warlords are again being seen as useful partners as President Obama undertakes a massive overhaul of the war in Afghanistan. In addition to sending in 17,000 fresh troops, the administration is also finalizing a review of U.S. policy expected to be released early next week. The new plan will likely call for deploying hundreds of diplomats and other civilian officials, devoting more resources to local and provincial governments, and mounting a counter narcotics push in southern Afghanistan, say senior U.S. officials in Washington.

Former warlords with track records of providing for people in their provinces could be critical in the drive to undercut support for the Taliban, say U.S. and Afghan officials.

Opponents say these strongmen also have track records of violence, corruption and a disdain for the rule of law -- and thus raise questions about democracy's place in Afghanistan. With Mr. Karzai's administration virtually penned in Kabul, and the Taliban resurgent, there is growing debate among diplomats, Afghan officials and analysts over whether a central government can effectively secure the country. Some say a return to a looser federation of regions might ultimately be more viable, even if some of those regions are led by former warlords.

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