Future in flux, Afghans linger 'at crossroads'

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Six years after a U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Taliban, Sardar Mohammed Roshan worries conditions in his country seem to be getting worse.

"It's a very dangerous situation right now," said Roshan, a former diplomat who helped drive out the Soviet army 18 years ago as a mujahidin warrior. "We are at the crossroads."

About 1,800 S.C. National Guard soldiers, members of the 218th Brigade Combat Team -- which includes the 178th Engineer Battalion of Rock Hill -- are standing at that crossroads. They are training Afghan soldiers and police, patrolling villages, helping drill wells and build homes, and feeding and clothing the poor.

But, Roshan and others say, it will be the Afghan people -- not U.S. or coalition soldiers -- who will determine their country's fate.

"We still have the chance to turn this country into a model nation, and a partner in peace and development," said Roshan, the former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan. "If we fail to take advantage of those opportunities, that will be the biggest tragedy of modern history."

Progress toward rebuilding Afghanistan has been slowed by fighting with the Taliban that continues in some sections of the country despite the loss of 600 U.S. and coalition troops, and the expenditure of more than $125 billion by the U.S. alone.

The stakes are high, including whether the rest of the world will be safe from al-Qaida terrorists who used Afghanistan to launch the 9/11 attacks.

But, unlike Iraq, there remains strong U.S. and Afghan support for continuing the U.S. role in Afghanistan. Still, that support has been torn at times by the coalition's heavy hand -- using airstrikes because, critics say, too few coalition troops are in the country.

As the coalition has adapted, sending more troops to Afghanistan, the Taliban has, too. The Taliban has adopted the kidnapping and suicide-bomber tactics that have proven so devastating in Iraq, attacking schools and police stations.

But a resurgent Taliban is only one reason Afghanistan continues to linger at its crossroads.

Afghanistan's history and economy are large parts of the problem.

• The country has no tradition as a democracy or of having a strong federal government. Historically, Afghanistan has been a loose confederation of tribes. Pre-Taliban, some areas were ruled by warlords who commanded their own militias. Today, the warlords still are boss in some of those areas.

• Post-Taliban Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a narco-state. The country's poppy farmers produce 92 percent of the world's supply of illicit opium, used to make heroin.

• That drug money has further fueled the Afghan culture of corruption. The World Bank rates Afghanistan as the fourth-most corrupt country in the world.

'We need America'

Despite the problems, there is still strong support among Americans and Afghans to continue the Good War.

A recent Gallup Poll found 70 percent of Americans think sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks was the right thing to do, almost the same level of support that was voiced in 2004. (That compares with more than 60 percent of Americans who think it was a mistake to invade Iraq.)

Afghans are even more sold on the U.S. presence, according to World Public Opinion, affiliated with the University of Maryland.

Its most recent survey found 82 percent of Afghans backed the U.S.-led coalition. The poll reported 88 percent of Afghans rejected Taliban rule and 81 percent rejected al-Qaida's ideals.

"Our people think America came here to help make our country better and to stop the fighting," said Rasool Khan, a member of the Kuchi tribe who lives east of Kabul. "We need America here."

Security issues

Security varies from region to region, said Brig. Gen. Bob Livingston, commander of the S.C. National Guard's 218th and Task Force Phoenix, a 17-nation organization that's training Afghan forces.

The southern section of the country -- the area close to the Pakistani border that includes the Taliban's home in Kandahar -- is the most volatile, said Livingston, of Lexington County.

Most western provinces, the Kabul area and northern Afghanistan are more peaceful, he added.

As far as boots on the ground, the U.S. and NATO now have about 50,000 troops in the country, while the Afghan army and police total about 100,000.

The show of coalition and Afghan force has prompted the Taliban -- which has between 10,000 and 20,000 fighters -- to change tactics, coalition commanders say.

But the shift in tactics will fail, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted on a recent tour of Afghanistan.

"The Taliban, they're not going to come back," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We're not going to let them come back, and I think we're going to leave a military behind to defeat these guys."

Opium trade impedes progress

However, the Taliban are not the only threat to Afghanistan's future. Progress also is threatened by opium production, which fuels corruption.

"Across Afghanistan, militia commanders, criminal organizations and corrupt officials have exploited narcotics as a reliable source of revenue and patronage, which has perpetuated the threat these groups pose to the country's fragile internal security and the legitimacy of its embryonic democratic government," states a July report by the Congressional Research Service.

Afghanistan produces 92 percent of the world's illicit supply of opium, a figure expected to grow to 95 percent when reports on the 2007 crop are in, officials said.

Illicit drug sales are key to the Afghan economy, accounting for about a third of the country's $10 billion-a-year gross domestic product.

Opium production involves 2.9 million Afghan farmers and an additional 225,000 traders. That's roughly 14 percent of the population of a country where 40 percent of adults are jobless.

Once banned under Taliban rule, poppy production is rocketing, in part, because the insurgents see the drug trade as way to raise money to pay fighters, and buy gear and weapons.

"The type of environment that is created by a violent drug trade undermines the development of a safe and civil society," said U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chairman of the Afghanistan Caucus.

To combat the narco-insurgent alliance, poppy fields regularly are destroyed. But, in a country where the average Afghan makes about $330 a year, destroying a crop that nets a farmer an average of $3,500 can produce new recruits for the Taliban, according to U.S. government reports.

One option being explored by Task Force Phoenix soldiers is finding alternative cash crops.