SAROBI, Afghanistan — The atmosphere inside the district headquarters had grown as torrid as the pulsing summer heat outside when tempers finally exploded.
"If you keep rudely interrupting me, I'll stomp on you," thundered Ali Ahmad, a grizzled tribal elder. Dozens of men leapt from the floor, some with fists and teeth clenched, others pushing apart would-be brawlers.
The uproar that ended the traditional tribal parley last week was a measure of the volatility that's left Sarobi the only one of 15 districts in Kabul province that the U.S.-led international security force hasn't transferred to Afghan responsibility.
This Taliban-haunted district's dysfunctional governance, power struggles and long-standing rivalries offer a grim microcosm of the national crises that plague Afghanistan. Together, they're fueling fears that the drawdown of allied combat forces that began last month could push the country deeper into turmoil and perhaps even all-out civil war.
Sarobi's struggles may not be unique in Afghanistan, but the 425-square-mile district of sweeping mountains and remote valleys, home to about 120,000 people, is especially crucial to the country's fate.
Sarobi is a strategic gateway to Kabul, the Afghan capital. The main highway linking Kabul to the Pakistani border runs through here, a vital corridor for trade, travel and U.S. military supplies.
The highway skirts the Kabul River as it plunges through the cliffs of the Kabul Gorge and finally spills into a mountain-ringed basin, where it feeds an azure lake formed by a decrepit, Soviet-built hydroelectric dam. Tracing a route that invaders used for centuries, it passes between rocky choke points that make perfect defenses.
In 1996, after overrunning the district center, Taliban fighters took less than 24 hours to storm into Kabul, 30 miles to the west, where they consolidated their grip on Afghanistan and set the world on a collision course with Sept. 11, 2001.
Residents of Sarobi — a clutter of ramshackle stores, flyblown fruit stands and dank eateries straddling the highway — recall the factional battles that convulsed the town during the civil war that followed the 1989 pullout by Soviet troops.
"I hope God doesn't bring those times back," said Rahmatullah Ahmadzai, sitting in his shop stuffed with DVDs and CDs, which the Taliban banned as un-Islamic. "The Taliban say that killing one music shop owner is the same as killing 12 French soldiers."
Some 3,900 French troops are deployed in Sarobi and a neighboring district. French commanders had hoped to begin pulling them out as early as this past February but the move was delayed until late this year. a prospect that still fills residents and officials with dread.
"The security here depends on the foreigners," warned Hazrat Mohammad Haqbin, a veteran bureaucrat who runs the district administration. "A neutral force of some kind will be needed here when the French leave. People in this region are murderous to each other and they will kill each other."
Violence is way down from when the French deployed here three years ago and lost 10 soldiers in an ambush, the French army's single biggest loss in 25 years. The Taliban fire at vehicles on remote stretches of the highway and stage occasional bomb strikes, though they stay away from Sarobi town.