S.C. Guard learns some concerns -- jobs, schools, safety -- are shared a world away

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The issues sounded familiar: high joblessness, deteriorating schools and poor police protection.

But the meeting wasn't somewhere in South Carolina. Instead, the subjects came up Wednesday at a meeting of S.C. National Guard soldiers and representatives of villages surrounding Camp Phoenix, the base outside Kabul where thousands of U.S. and coalition troops live.

For the Americans, the meeting was part of the battle to win Afghan hearts and minds, and also, hopefully, improve security around the mammoth base in the process. For Afghans, the meeting was a chance to present their concerns.

"Humans are humans," said Lt. Col. Bob Bradshaw of the S.C. National Guard. "It's the human condition they live in."

Nine Afghan elders met with Bradshaw, commander of the 218th Brigade Combat Team's security forces, and his staff.

Some were religious and civic leaders. One was a former commander of the Mujahideen, the rebel force that drove the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. All hold considerable sway in their communities, said Bradshaw of Goose Creek.

"They can keep riots from occurring outside our gates," Bradshaw said.

Called a "shura," Afghan for council or consultation, the meeting was held in the modern, four-story office building of a Kabul construction company.

Bradshaw and his staff, escorted by a rifle squad, marched to the office building from the nearby camp.

The troops navigated narrow alleys of mud hut villages, walked past piles of rotting garbage and stepped over open ditches of human waste to get to the meeting. Along the way, they saw many of the issues the Afghan elders wanted to talk about.

Once inside the office building, the soldiers removed their Kevlar helmets and body armor, and entered a large office ringed with chairs. Pleasantries were exchanged and chai tea an Afghan custom was served.

One of the elders, Ajab-gul, the former rebel leader, apologized for the hot and dusty weather. He said it was too bad the soldiers had to be in Afghanistan instead of the lusher, greener surroundings of South Carolina.

That remark prompted another elder, Haji Rafiq Khan, to say the area around Camp Phoenix once was green with trees. But that changed 30 years ago, after the Soviets invaded the country and deforestation began, he added. Only about 2 percent of the country's forests remain, according to reports.

Khan then touched on rising crime and drug use. There was a time, he said, when a person could sleep on the side of the road and not worry about being harmed. Not so today.

"Now everything is being destroyed. No one can guarantee their own life," Khan said through an interpreter.

When lunch was served, the group went to another room where plates, silverware and food were spread out on the floor.

Everyone sat down cross-legged and ate a meal of do-payazia (lamb), qabeli (rice, carrots and raisins) and manna (unleavened bread).

After lunch, the group returned to the large office and Capt. David Brooks offered an update on seven proposed construction projects. New schools, a clinic and restoration of a mosque were on the list.

Brooks of Cheraw said the list was just a proposal. Other people up the chain of command would make the final decision. "We aren't making promises," he said.

Khan presented Bradshaw with a list of people who needed jobs. They could be hired by Kellogg, Brown & Root, the civilian contractor that maintains Camp Phoenix, Khan said.

Hiring local residents is a priority, Bradshaw said later.

"They're not going to want rockets and mortars to fall in on us," Bradshaw said of Afghan employees at the base and their relatives. "They don't want that because they might not have a job."

Bradshaw, who meets twice a month with elders of the villages surrounding the camp, believes the shuras are beneficial to the troops and local residents.

"We heard the issues in the community," Bradshaw said. "We look for ways to help them and they look for ways to help us with our security."