Homecoming closer to home

COLUMBIA -- With less than six months to go before heading home, time's running out for S.C. National Guard troops in Afghanistan.

"We've got so many things we could do to make things better for the Afghans," Brig. Gen. Bob Livingston said Friday. "We're definitely starting to feel the time crunch."

The Columbia business owner is commander of the Guard's 1,800-member 218th Brigade Combat Team -- which includes the 178th Engineer Battalion of Rock Hill -- that took over a task force that is training the Afghan army and police.

Guard leaders already are making plans to send some troops home, Livingston said during a teleconference from his headquarters at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan.

About 200 soldiers of the Mullins-based 1st Battalion, 263rd Armor Regiment will leave Afghanistan in January, Livingston said.

The unit will return to Fort Bragg, N.C., instead of Camp Shelby, Miss., where it mobilized for the Afghan mission.

Having the troops return closer to home will allow them to reunite sooner with family, Livingston said. Mullins is about 85 miles from Fort Bragg.

Where the rest of the 1,600 S.C. troops, who are due home in May, demobilize hasn't been determined, Livingston said.

Fort Bragg might not be able to handle the S.C. troops. That's because a brigade of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, will be returning from Afghanistan at about the same time, Livingston said.

Other options are being explored, he added.

The police training mission is making progress, and some Afghan police units now are capable of resisting Taliban forces, the one-star leader said.

"We've had some very good successes," Livingston said. "The police are doing very well against the Taliban and organized crime."

He added that recent polls show the Afghan public is beginning to regard the police as highly as it does the country's army. Some 80 percent of Afghans say the army is the country's most-respected institution.

But more needs to be done to train, equip and recruit Afghan police, he added.

The Afghan police force numbers about 57,000 officers, and plans are to increase the force to 82,000, Livingston said.