HUTAL, Afghanistan – HUTAL, Afghanistan (AP) — 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.
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. He also knows the effort is unsustainable without greater support from the central Afghan government in Kabul.
"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."
For now, Thoreen and Maiwand's district governor, Obaidullah Bawari, are working with what they have — which isn't much.
The 49-year-old Bawari, who has occupied the post for a year, has no staff except his personal assistant and no government budget except for the roughly $400 monthly salary that he receives from Kabul. He is responsible for civilian government operations in the district, including water, power and schools, and he mediates disputes.
There are about 150 Afghan police deployed in Maiwand, but they report to both the chief of police in Kandahar City as well as the provincial governor.
"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 Afghan government recently launched a new program backed by the U.S. to increase support to 80 key districts in the country, many of them in the south and east.
But Kandahar's provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, visited Maiwand for the first time recently and said he didn't have any additional resources to offer the district.
"That kind of blew my mind," said Thoreen, a West Point graduate from Seattle, Washington. "After nine years in Afghanistan we're still at this point."
When the troops from 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment first arrived in Hutal in September, Bawari basically had no authority within the district because he doesn't come from a powerful family and isn't well-educated.
"He was very intimidated, very helpless and had no sense of his responsibilities," Thoreen said.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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. "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.