America's farmer-soldiers in Afghanistan

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Khost Province, Afghanistan — It's tough doing development work in an Afghan war zone. Just ask the Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team, a group of 64 farmer-soldiers working in Khost, an insurgency-inflamed province on the Pakistan border.

Since arriving here nine months ago, the team (known as ADT) has been a development phalanx of the U. S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy.

Think of the ADT as extreme ag-extension agents. They travel the rebellious hinterlands in massive armored MRAP vehicles, with their well-armed security platoon protecting the team’s agriculture specialists. In the process of spearheading their agricultural projects, the ADT has encountered numerous IEDs, rocket and mortar attacks, and the constant threat of ambush and assassination.

Hand-picked for both agricultural skills and a capacity to operate in a most un-Hoosier environment, the ADT is an elite Indiana National Guard unit. It’s top-heavy with an inordinate amount of brass and learning.

“You can’t swing a cat in here without hitting someone with an advanced degree,” says Capt. Robert Cline, himself a southern Indiana cattle farmer and prosecuting attorney with a Masters in accounting.

To prepare themselves for their central Asian mission, the team underwent agricultural training with Purdue University’s Afghanistan Project, and extensive Afghan language and cultural training at Indiana University, home of one of the world’s top central Asian studies departments.

Designed to be small-scale and Afghan-appropriate, the ADT projects include animal husbandry and para-vet training, water projects to improve irrigation and erosion control, rangeland management for this semi-arid land, seed improvement and fertilizer application training, beekeeping and poultry projects, some for impoverished women. The team plans to establish tree nurseries and orchards, as well as use trees to establish agricultural field buffers to help with desiccation.

Rather than expensive infrastructure projects, there is a focus on sustainability and training.

“Knowledge is something the Taliban cannot blow up or burn down,” ADT commander Col. Brian Copes says to Afghans in village shuras (meetings). “They get that,” he continues. “Every time I’ve thrown that out, they get that, they understand that.”

A cerebral soldier with strong people skills, Copes grew up Hoosier hill-country farm boy, which helps him understand hardscrabble Afghan farming.

But all of this warm and fuzzy humanitarian work is nested in classic counterinsurgency strategy, which dictates that long-term development is essential to beating a popular insurgency.

Col. Mike Howard is the commander of Task Force Yukon, responsible for some of eastern Afghanistan’s most kinetic (military-speak for violent) provinces. Howard says his focus is now on stabilizing operations — combat operations and training Afghan security forces. But he quickly adds, “The stabilizing stuff keeps everybody settled down. It’s very near-term. It’s very inefficient and there’s lots of criticism because it’s inefficient and costs a lot of money. But it keeps things settled down so that long-term developers like the ADT can increase agribusiness development. I mean, we spent a lot of money on oil in Iraq because it was an oil-based economy. Well, we got to spend a lot of money on agriculture in Afghanistan because it’s an agricultural-based economy.”

So the ADT has the skill set, assets and support to operate in a conflict zone like Khost Province. And they need all of it to do even small projects, such as a recent water project in contentious Tani District. Starting last April, the ADT designed a series of 87 tiny, piled-rock dams for a seasonal mountain stream.

As part of the military’s pay-for-work strategy for military-age Afghan males (to theoretically out-pay Taliban recruiters), the ADT planned to pay men from two adjacent villages, Shobo Khel and Zanda Khel, to construct the dams.

To bring project to fruition, the ADT had to resolve an old conflict between the two taciturn villages, negotiate the multiplicity of U.S. and Afghan governmental entities intent on their own agendas (Copes sometimes quotes Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”), bring a corrupt and inefficient contractor to heel, and survive an IED attack.

Even quality control is tough, involving a convoy of 10 MRAPs, dozens of security soldiers to guard against Taliban operating out of a village a kilometer away, and a willingness to gear down to central Asian tribal time to resolve the latest crisis.

But in the end, there are a 150 Afghan farmers working to build sustainable dams that will bring increased crops and healthier livestock to these impoverished and historically Taliban-tolerant villages.

While the long-term outcome of the ADT’s work is yet to be determined, these villagers are clearly affected by the team’s efforts. “If we are seeing the bad people, we are to be letting know the Afghan government — absolutely,” volunteers one turbaned Shobo Khel elder through an ADT interpreter, who adds, “He say, ‘I am really appreciating from the ADT they starting this kind of project in my area.’ ”