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Progress, with caveats

Visiting areas that until recently were Taliban strongholds, you can see the gains that President Obama described Thursday -- and also why they remain, in his words, "fragile and reversible."

Here's what progress looks like for Casey Johnson, a civilian aid worker in the district where insurgent leader Mohammad Omar once led a mosque. Now that Taliban fighters have been cleared, Johnson can go "outside the wire" to the district council office and listen to residents' grievances and requests about such matters as land disputes. He can help Afghan officials organize a district "shura," or local council, that perhaps can solve problems.

And here's the fragility: The Afghans don't trust the Americans or the Afghan government yet. They supported the Taliban for years because it provided a kind of rough justice and security, and they don't know if the new power structure will last.

Zhari lies to the west of Kandahar, in what's probably the decisive battleground of the war. It was cleared by Canadian troops in 2006, but the Taliban came back strong -- which explains why local residents are skeptical about the new American surge.

The Afghan government presence has been corrupt or nonexistent. As a State Department official here puts it, Zhari has "broken politics" -- a description that sadly fits most of the country under the presidency of Hamid Karzai.

Even a few months ago, many experts doubted that better governance was possible here. The local power brokers, like Kandahar kingpin Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother, were corrupt and incompetent. Reform may still be mission impossible, but with the Taliban on the run, some Zhari residents have decided to give it a try.

The best news is that about 80 people showed up Monday for the first meeting of the shura despite the assassination last week of one of the organizers. Will people keep coming back for more meetings, despite the intimidation? That will be the measure of future progress.

Visiting with American soldiers here Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned that success "isn't going to happen overnight." But the fact that he can even visit a base that a few months ago was under regular mortar fire tells you that something has changed.

The awkward balance -- of better security but governance structures that may be fatally weak -- was evident in Marja, a district in Helmand province that has been a case study of the difficulties of the Afghanistan War. The area was cleared last February by U.S. Marines with much fanfare and talk about installing "government in a box." Ten months later, security is finally getting better, but there's still more box than government.

Violence is down. But many positions in the district government are empty. And the Afghan army, which is supposed to take over from U.S. forces, is still shaky, operating at only about half its authorized strength. The problem is structural: Afghan battalion commanders pay superiors to get their posts, and then are paid for authorized troop levels. They hire fewer soldiers and pocket the difference. That's unfortunately a model of how much of Afghanistan works. The power brokers profit from underperformance.

President Obama says that the measure of success in Afghanistan is that he can stick to his schedule and begin withdrawing U.S. troops and transferring responsibility to the Afghans next July. That part still sounds like wishful thinking, given the mixed picture. There's progress, but as the president rightly said, it's still very frail.

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