ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — Chris Harich was catching up on e-mails at his cramped southern Afghanistan office in mid-June when a colleague popped his head in to deliver the news: The Arghandab district governor, America's main political point man in the volatile valley, had just been assassinated.
Harich, 35, hired by the State Department for a year to help Afghans build their government and legal system, was stunned, and the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in this showcase district of embattled Kandahar province was suddenly very much in question.
"I was devastated," said Harich, a lawyer, former whitewater rafting guide U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Baton Rouge, La., and the only State Department political strategist in Arghandab. The district governor, Haji Abdul Jabar, "had been my mentor, my teacher, my adviser and my friend. He was almost like a grandfather to me. It was a big blow to my morale."
In many parts of Afghanistan, a political assassination such as this would have been a fatal blow to American attempts to set up a competent local government.
Insurgent assassinations of Afghan leaders averaged about one a day in the first six months of this year, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that analyzes security risks for aid groups.
In Arghandab, however, locals picked a strong successor to Jabar, reinforcing a U.S. strategy that's been plagued by more setbacks than successes.
The aftermath of the assassination puts a spotlight on the largely overlooked civilian surge that's as critical to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as the influx of 30,000 additional American fighters is.
The number of American civilians working at remote Afghan bases has grown fivefold over the past year, to 300 from 65. Their challenge is to synchronize military operations with political development.
"You can't get security until you have stability, but you can't have stability without governance," said one Western strategist in Arghandab who was given permission by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to speak only if his name wasn't used.
Within days of the assassination, local officials bypassed a candidate preferred by U.S. officials and selected a boisterous fruit trader to succeed Jabar as district governor.
Although he was a wild card to Harich and his American colleagues, Haji Shah Mohammed Ahmadi quickly became an outspoken leader and a reliable U.S. ally.
"Jabar's death, though a very bad thing, did nothing more than solidify the government he started," said Army Lt. Col. Guy Jones, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division forces from Fort Bragg, N.C., in the Arghandab district. "That will be his legacy."
Some U.S. officials look to Arghandab as a model for progress in the nine-year-old war, but others are skeptical.
The lush Arghandab valley, which curves around Kandahar city and envelops the Taliban's spiritual home, is a proving ground for the counterinsurgency strategy now led by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The former home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, now a heavily guarded home for U.S. Special Forces, sits on the edge of the valley not far from the Arghandab district government center. The area's dense orchards and winding canals offer insurgents a haven to plan and launch attacks on U.S. troops, Afghan forces and nearby Kandahar city.
American troops have transformed one-time Arghandab killing zones into pockets of relative stability. Special Forces working with loosely regulated local militias have made headway in difficult areas, and the influx of U.S. soldiers has put new pressure on Taliban forces on their home turf.
However, even Western strategists here aren't convinced that the painstaking improvements in this pivotal valley can be replicated elsewhere in Afghanistan.
"I think the odds are stacked against us on that," said a second Western official working in the region, who also was given permission by the U.S. Embassy to speak only if he wasn't identified.
Though they've made progress, the strategist said, the U.S. and its Afghan allies haven't been able to make a critical breakthrough in Arghandab.
"It's like a lock, but what is that last number?" he said. "We're right there, but we don't quite have the number. There is something that we're missing."
Ahmadi, the new district governor, remains a lonely figure who travels in a military bubble of tenuous protection. A few aides accompany him on risky trips around the valley, but most of his skeleton staff is too scared to come to work.
Most of the workers in Ahmadi's two-story government center are American soldiers and civilians. The district center, nestled in a valley hillside not far from Mullah Omar's former house, is encircled by American and Afghan forces.
Ahmadi relies on the U.S. military to fly him into the most volatile parts of his district, and his life is always at risk. He still has to seek approval from local power brokers before turning up in their villages.
"Jabar built the boat out of matchsticks, and this is the guy who can sail the boat," said Kevin Melton, an energetic representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Arghandab.
Ahmadi was an unknown in late June, when about two-dozen Arghandab elders chose him to lead the district.
American strategists were subtly backing the district leader of the local shura, or council. However, Ahmadi, a former mujahedeen fighter and well-off farmer, emerged as the unexpected compromise candidate.
He slipped quickly into his role. Recently, the district governor flew in a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter across the Arghandab River for his first visit to the volatile northwest swath of the valley.
Though only a few miles from his government headquarters, it was too risky to drive, even in an armed convoy.
Inside a U.S. military base, Ahmadi met a small coterie of Arghandab leaders who complained about U.S. forces shooting at farmers.
American strategists hoped that Ahmadi could secure the local leaders' help in launching development projects in the area, but the gathering quickly broke up without any agreements.
While popping bitter, green chewing tobacco in his mouth, Ahmadi castigated insurgents as an insidious virus — not as disaffected brothers, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and others trying to broker peace deals sometimes refer to the Taliban.
"If my brother is destroying my house, he is my enemy," Ahmadi said in an interview at his district headquarters. "If my enemy extends my hand in friendship, then he will be welcome."
Jones, of the 82nd Airborne, touted the transfer as a sign that U.S. counterinsurgency strategy — known as COIN — is making headway in Arghandab.
"I think COIN is working," Jones said. "There's going to be fighting for 20 or 30 years from now. The question is: Is it to a level that the government can still stand and still continue on? That's the true testament of whether COIN works or not."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Afghanistan news at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul
McClatchy Newspapers 2010