An elite group of Kentucky Army and Air Force National Guard troops is improving the lives of impoverished Afghan farm families, bringing agricultural expertise in the middle of a combat zone
HIGH IN THE MOUNTAIN FASTNESS of central Asia, Kentucky farmer-soldiers battle the Taliban by aiding Afghan farmers.
With the challenges of terrain, culture, and security, these Kentuckians are forced to operate like a band of extreme ag-extension agents as they bring agricultural development projects to this enormous, complex region.
The Kentucky National Guard Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) is a handpicked unit of 63 men and women, many with agricultural backgrounds, who are using their farming skills to improve the lives of impoverished farm families with sustainable agricultural techniques. Led by 12 officers, this elite team of Army and Air Force National Guard troops is making a difference in a region still ravaged by war. "It's a small unit that has a big impact," says Army Colonel Mike Farley, the ADT commander who hails from Corbin.
The National Guard also has four other teams from Kansas, Tennessee, Indiana, and Missouri working in Afghanistan.
In many ways, the ADT is not a new concept. American farmers have been putting down their plows to fight for their country since frontier days. And Americans have been engaged with nation-building since the Marshall Plan helped Europe and Japan back on their feet. But with Afghanistan in the midst of a daunting Taliban-led insurgency, the ADT has to balance both development and combat as they gingerly provide aid in an active war zone. So think of the ADT as a type of Peace Corps with guns.
About 85 percent of the Afghan people are connected to agriculture for their livelihoods. A typical Afghan farmer is trying to feed his large family from about a half-acre to an acre of ground, often using beasts of burden and wooden plows to turn the brownish-gray soil. The Afghan per capita income scarcely reaches $400 a year. In this calorie-deficient society, rural people often slowly starve in the long winter. "They're in survival mode," says the ADT agricultural team leader, Lt. Colonel Ruth Graves, who, when in Kentucky, works a 300-acre farm in Franklin.
Frustrated with the weak, U.S.-supported Afghan government, Afghans are vacillating between the Taliban and the Kabul government. Counterinsurgency strategists contend the ADT's low-budget, Afghan-appropriate development projects will help connect Afghan farmers to the central government and make the Taliban a less attractive option.
The Kentucky ADT arrived in Afghanistan in August 2009. This is the first of at least four teams Kentucky has pledged to work in legendary Afghan provinces: Parwan, Panjshir, Kapisa, and Bamyan, a 9,800-square-mile territory of rugged mountains, dry rangeland, and arable valleys, inhabited by squabbling tribes encultured by centuries of war.
Located north of the capital city of Kabul, mountainous Parwan Province includes Bagram Air Field, the primary U.S. base and the ADT's post. The Afghan insurgents launch so many strikes on the sprawling base that the boom of rockets and blare of Bagram's "giant voice" announcing attacks are commonplace. To the north of Parwan, the alpine Panjshir Valley is a stronghold of the Tajik people, who were stalwarts against both the Soviet invaders and the Taliban. To the east of Bagram, Kapisa Province is a wild, mountainous, Taliban-controlled region.
To the west, Bamyan Province was celebrated for the towering sixth-century Buddha statues, until the Taliban destroyed them in a fit of radical Islamic zeal in 2001. Descendants of Genghis Khanï¿½s soldiers, the Hazarans, are Bamyan's dominant tribe. The terrain, culture, and security create special challenges for the Kentuckians who are working to improve the life of Afghani farmers and their families.
Circle of Life sustainable programs
Water and soil-erosion projects are an essential part of the ADT's mission in semi-arid Afghanistan. Though there is water from rivers, groundwater, and seasonal mountain snowpack, 30 years of war have devastated centuries-old irrigation systems. The ADT is helping to re-establish those traditional systems. The ADT is also introducing modern, water-conserving irrigation technology, such as low-tech drip and sprinkler systems, but Afghanistan's lack of electricity precludes widespread usage.
The team's ag specialists also take advantage of modern opportunities, like the project they are doing at a desiccated village called Usbashi. Surrounded by ADT security soldiers with automatic weapons at the ready, Lt. Col. Marion (Toby) Peterson, the ADT's engineer coordinator from Lexington, talks to a village leader, Dr. Wazi, about the plan to reroute the irrigation canals. The redirected canals will allow the villagers to utilize 2 million gallons a day of greywater from Bagram's wastewater treatment plant, just half a mile away. "I'm going to do my best to get them water—my very best," Lt. Col. Peterson tells the villagers. "Inshallah" (God willing), Dr. Wazi replies.
Beyond irrigation and soil-erosion projects, the ADT has an array of agricultural projects that emphasize long-term sustainability, a concept the ADT explains to Afghans with the Dari language phrases zinda nega dashtan, "to keep it alive," and khud kefa, "to self-sustain." The ADT tries to incorporate sustainability through multiple shuras (meetings) with provincial and tribal leaders to ensure the Afghans actually want the project. Then the ADT verifies the Afghans have "some skin in the game," through such inputs as village labor and ongoing provincial government support.
The ADT mission is encapsulated in their Circle of Life program. Costing about $100,000, each Circle of Life can support a village of 5,000-6,000 people. The program includes water projects, such as wells, micro-dams, and irrigation. As part of the Circle of Life, the ADT also teaches simple procedures like seed cleaning to increase grain production, and grape trellising to improve yields. To improve woodlots and orchards, the team provides basic pruning equipment and teaches pruning techniques. And in a great departure from typical Bluegrass State crops, the ADT also assists with high-value Afghan crops, including saffron and pomegranates, which hopefully will supplant another profitable Afghan crop: opium poppies.
The ADT also works to improve Afghan livestock through better animal husbandry and grazing fodder. Lt. Colonel Carney Jackson (since retired), a UK veterinarian from Richmond, says the cattle look a little boney. "They feed them anything green. The cattle are almost like goats here, they eat anything." Anticipating future Afghan agricultural surpluses, the ADT is also facilitating cold-storage projects. Again, the lack of electricity precludes anything very modern, so the ADT promulgates some old-fashioned technology: root cellars. Aimed at improving Afghan women's lives, the team is also developing poultry and honeybee projects.
With the U.S. government intending to begin troop withdrawal sometime in the near future, it is essential for the ADT to get Afghan provincial officials up to speed—"to put an Afghan face" on their projects, as the team likes to say. The ADT mentors Afghan bureaucrats in basic managerial skills, such as budgeting and maintenance, and in elementary governance. Capacity-building is the term the soldiers use as they mentor in unending shuras. "Governance and capacity-building was the thing we didn't expect," says Major John Holmes, the ADT executive officer from Frankfort.
Capacity-building is just one aspect of the ADT's concentration on education. The ADT helps train and equip Afghan agricultural extension agents to work with farmers out in the field—"training the trainer," in military jargon. The ADT additionally partners with Kabul University and Al-Biruni University on demonstration farms, where Afghan students learn about modern agriculture, and ag specialists experiment with new crops.
Friend or foe?
Though the ADT soldiers are in Afghanistan to help with development, they still have to confront the insurgency on an almost daily basis. Major Eddie Simpson of London says, "No matter what you do or where you go, there's always the threat of an IED (improvised explosive device) or other insurgent activities." Major Simpson is the leader of the Force Protection task force, which—along with the local tribes and villagers—protects the agricultural experts as they work on their farm aid. Beyond ubiquitous IEDs, the insurgents attack with ambushes, mortars,
and rockets, suicide bombers, and beheadings of Afghans who cooperate with the U.S.-led Coalition forces.
"Beheadings are pretty much 'show and tell,'" Simpson says. "For the most part, they blow you up, or shoot you and drive on." So far the team has not taken any casualties. "We've been very, very fortunate," Simpson says. "We found an IED on the way to Kapisa. Saw the wires sticking out of a culvert. But you can't stay away from places because there's a threat there."
The convoluted political situation in Afghanistan adds another level of stress, as the ADT can seldom determine who is friend or foe—or both.
"The enemy is not dressed in another uniform," Simpson wryly says. It creates further tension for the Afghans, who are often sitting on the fence between the Taliban and the U.S.-led forces. "The village elder knows that he's trying to get something from us. But he also knows there's a Taliban sympathizer in the crowd. He's putting his family, his livelihood, at risk. He's trying to be nice to us and get the water from us. But he knows that person may turn him in," Simpson says.
Even more pernicious is the widespread corruption, which is alienating the Afghan people from the central government and also helping to fund the Taliban. "The level of corruption is pretty high," Simpson says. "It's a struggle."
But like the frontiersmen of old, the Kentucky farmer-soldiers are not deterred by threat or struggle. In spite of the dangers and challenges, they are persisting in their mission to win Afghan hearts and minds—one farmer at a time. As Lt. Col. Peterson says: "We're able to make a difference for the people of Afghanistan. We help them raise their standard of living—to progress."
ELECTRICITY IN AFGHANISTAN
Much of Afghanistan is in the dark. Fewer than 15 percent of Afghans currently have access to electricity, which creates major challenges for the ADT and the Afghans.
"The lack of electricity affects heat, water, purification—you can run the whole gamut of human hygiene and sanitation," says Lt. Col. Marion (Toby) Peterson, the ADT's engineer coordinator from Lexington. "And with electricity you can use more pumps and improve irrigation."
The U.S. government has made energy a primary development goal. The U.S. Agency for International Development has built major generation facilities, such as the recently opened 105-megawatt Tarakhil Power Plant, which provides power to more than 500,000 Afghans in Kabul. USAID also rehabilitated the Kajaki Dam, southern Afghanistan's principal source of electricity.
But Afghanistan's power grid is focused on cities, and most Afghans still live in remote villages far from any utility lines. To bring power to these places, USAID is supporting the construction of approximately 300 micro-hydropower, solar, and wind-power systems to create electricity from renewable natural resources. This $80 million project is aimed at insurgency-wracked eastern and southern Afghanistan. As part of the project, Dodarak Village in Nangarhar Province went electric for the first time in April 2009, when the villagers' 60-kilowatt micro-hydropower plant began providing electricity to 1,200 residents. With electricity come cold drinks, ice cream, and plans for a strawberry jam factory, flour mill, textile factory, and carpenter shop. In Logar, Paktya, and Ghazni provinces, families each received a solar panel that generates approximately 40 watts of sustained electricity, enough to light four rooms with the commonly used 10-watt bulbs. According to USAID, 25 solar panels cost a total of $10,700, and will save each family about $30 per month.
The Kentucky National Guard Agribusiness Development Team cooperates with USAID on Afghanistan's electrical capacity. While repairing an important water diversion project on the Salang River in Parwan Province, the ADT hydrologists and engineers saw an opportunity. "We took USAID out there to look at the possibility of a hydroelectric project," says Lt. Col. Peterson, which resulted in a small hydroelectric project, bringing a little more light to this benighted part of the world.
BEES OF BAGRAM
This is a story about birds and bees. Army Sergeant Jo Lisa Ashley is the ADT's Women's Empowerment Program coordinator. A University of Kentucky graduate from Eubank, Sgt. Ashley is one of six ADT female soldiers. She supervises the team's women's projects, such as saffron, oyster mushrooms, and beekeeping.
Championed by Sgt. Ashley, imported Italian bees in Afghan-made hives are now in 200 sites across Parwan and Kapisa provinces, where Afghan tribal women nurture their little moneymaking insects. The hives have thrived, producing up to 6 kilograms (a little over 13 pounds) of honey. "That's pretty good for the first year," Sgt. Ashley says.
Sgt. Ashley also tends hives in a most unlikely location. On the roof of a half-wrecked building at the far edge of Bagram Air Field, the buzzing of bees mingles with the pulse of departing fighter jets and helicopters—the "birds" as the soldiers call them. Up a precarious stairway, Sgt. Ashley's Bees of Bagram flit past her, headed for thistle and weed on the surrounding hardscrabble hillsides.
Sgt. Ashley didn't arrive in Afghanistan with extensive beekeeping knowledge—in fact, none. "Actually, I was scared of bugs," she laughs. "It was pretty scary the first time. I had on the full bee veil, gloves, my blouse was tucked in. But look at me now: no veil, no gloves. Here's one landing on my hand and I'm not freaking out. I've definitely come a long way."
To read more about Kentucky's Agricultural Development Teams, including more about Sgt. Ashley's honeybee project with the women of Afghanistan or how Army Col. Mike D. Farley and his team help Afghans improve productivity, go to Kentucky ADT. You can also watch videos and see more photos.
Douglas Wissing is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He embedded himself with ADT troops in Afghanistan to expand perceptions and show a different side of America's role in the region.