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America's farmer-soldiers in Afghanistan

An elite Indiana National Guard unit is patrolling Khost Province, helping Afghan farmers to help themselves.

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.