On the wall of his office in this district’s U.S. Marine headquarters, where other commanding officers might display photos of children and wives, Capt. Devin Blowes keeps a roster of bearded men whose names he’s recently learned to pronounce.

They are the same tribal elders Blowes’s predecessors relied on during some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Now, as the Marines draw down from southern Helmand province, these men will determine the future of Garmsir.

Tribal leaders are the backbone of this strategically vital region near Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan. If they refuse to support the government after NATO forces leave, U.S. officials say there’s a good chance the Taliban could make a vigorous return. But if traditional leaders present a united front against the insurgency, bolstering the legitimacy of the Afghan army and police, officials contend that a beleaguered Taliban won’t be able to reconquer the district.

Many tribal elders are still on the fence, engaging both the Taliban and the Americans just as the Marines complete their most dramatic withdrawal to date. More than half of the corps’ 17,000 troops will leave Helmand by the end of September. A year ago, they were dispersed across more than 60 bases and outposts in Garmsir alone — a measure of the importance they placed on beating back the insurgency in what was once a Taliban haven. By August, the stations were down to three.

That swift departure has made some of the elders pictured on Blowes’s wall nervous. He has sketched a red dot next to those who “play both sides” — men who shake his hand in district meetings but express doubts about the prospect of a post-Marine Helmand, hedging their bets by supporting the Taliban.

He has sketched a blue dot — a sign of trust and confidence in a district known for sordid alliances and obfuscation — next to only one face: a willowy elder from the influential Alizai tribe named Amir Shah Jan.

Since the Marines converged on southern Helmand in 2009, Jan has offered crucial guidance, often at his own peril. When his son was nearly killed by a suicide bomber, the Marines helped provide medical treatment. Last year, they facilitated his appointment as a local police commander. When he delivered information about the insurgency, officers listened carefully and often made arrests. Like other elders here, Jan is a key conduit to thousands of residents who are more conscious of the district’s tribal hierarchy than they are of the area’s newly installed political leadership.

Jan has long said that he needs the Marines for security. But the Marines might need him more than he needs them. If they can’t prevent the dot next to his picture from changing from blue to red, they risk losing hard-fought gains.

A strong head start

On paper, it looks as if the odds are in favor of the U.S.-backed government. There are about 3,000 Afghan soldiers and police in Garmsir and only 150 or so hardened Taliban fighters, according to a U.S. intelligence estimate. Although Garmsir was once the scene of major violence, ambushes and firefights in the district have largely subsided. The Marines describe their gift to the Afghans as “white space” — a strong head start against the Taliban. It’s a gift they know could be easily squandered.

“If the locals, particularly the elders, don’t trust their own government, they’re going to look for justice and protection elsewhere,” said one U.S. official in Garmsir.

Like many other Afghans in Garmsir, Jan assumes the American departure will hasten a Taliban ascension. So when he came to Forward Operating Base Delhi last month to meet with Marine and civilian leaders, it was with a sense of urgency.

Jan had a tip for the U.S. troops. He had recently turned in a man named Abdul Ali to the police — a local he described as a well-connected Talib. But rumor had it that Ali was going to bribe his way out of prison. The same thing had happened before, Jan said. He had turned Ali in to authorities, but he was later freed and went back to aiding the insurgency.

“We can’t let this happen again,” Jan said. He had crafted a letter signed by more than a dozen elders underscoring the point.

As they had during Jan’s past visits, the Marines nodded and scribbled notes. U.S. officials in Helmand acknowledged that it is not uncommon for guilty men to be released after paying bribes or pulling strings.

Later that evening, at a security briefing, Blowes told his men to follow up on Jan’s accusation.

“This is a guy we trust,” he said. “He has taken personal risks to work with us and to support the government.”

But Jan has little faith in the government, which he calls corrupt and ineffective. Within the past few months, the district police chief, district governor and top prosecutor have all been dismissed in separate cases of malfeasance.

“You’ve done a lot of good here,” Jan told Blowes. “But you failed to build a strong government.”

“We didn’t fail,” Blowes replied. “We just haven’t succeeded yet.”

Intertribal tensions

At FOB Delhi, Jan’s accusation about Ali came to symbolize his broader take on the injustice and ineptitude of the Afghan government. Maybe the Marines could prove him wrong, he hoped. Maybe there was still time to fix the system before they left. After all, he said, Abdul Ali’s release would mean a threat to his own life.

“If the Marines don’t stay until there is a good and transparent government, all the blood they lost here will be wasted,” he said.

But when Marines and Afghan police officers started interrogating Ali, the picture became more muddled.

Yes, Ali said, he had aided the insurgency; he had harbored members of the Taliban in his home. But he had done so only because Jan had threatened to steal his property and the Taliban had offered to protect him. This wasn’t about the insurgency or the government, he said. It was about a personal rivalry.

Abdul Ali’s defense appeared to check out. Even the Afghan detention roster said he was in custody for a “land dispute,” not for abetting the Taliban.

Suddenly, the Marines found themselves in the middle of a messy intertribal feud. Further complicating the judicial process: Abdul Ali had not formally confessed in an Afghan court to working with the Taliban.

“For now, we have nothing at all,” said Khiali Jan, head of the Helmand police force’s counterterrorism unit, after several weeks of investigating. “We’ve told the elders, if you don’t bring evidence and proof, we will have to release him.”

But the prospect of releasing Abdul Ali — and letting down Amir Shah Jan — was potentially devastating, even though the facts remained uncertain.

Southern Helmand is full of such vagaries. Eleven years into the war, the line between good and evil, ally and enemy, is as blurry as it has ever been.

Now, Amir Shah Jan is waiting — not only for a ruling on the Abdul Ali case but also for the more important verdict on the future of his district. The past few months of relative peace in Garmsir have been a rare glimpse into a vision he shares with the Marines.

“But for this to last,” he said, “everything needs to go right.”