The Seeds of a New Afghanistan

It’s early June, and members of the Indiana National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) are rolling north in a convoy of heavily armored Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. They’re about to enter Afghanistan’s restive Bak district. The V-shaped hulls of the MRAPs are designed to deflect roadside bomb blasts, necessary for any kind of military transportation through the region. Gunners manning M240 and .50-caliber machine guns and M16 grenade launchers in open-topped turrets provide protection. The team is on its way to a meeting with local leaders to discuss veterinary clinics and agricultural training. Passing into a farming region dotted with mud-brick villages and walled compounds called “qalats,” the team is watchful. A few weeks earlier, another ADT convoy hit a trip-wire bomb on the same route, totaling a $1.5 million MRAP. But the vehicle did its job, keeping injuries to some minor concussions. As the team crawls down that same narrow, poplar-lined lane, the soldiers are nervous, knowing that insurgents have planted six or seven IEDs within 600 meters of them. “You’re just on pins and needles going down there,” Sgt. Maj. Robert Lee Goodin says. Soldiers begin calling in reports on the crackling intercom: “The village seems deserted,” one says. “There’s no traffic,” reports another.

An Afghan man out in a field stares intently as the convoy creeps by. A soldier calls out that he has spotted a metal teapot beside the road. Is it a bomb? A gourd hanging in a tree triggers a truck commander’s premonition: “Gunner, get down!” Farther along the road, a donkey appears and stops the convoy in its tracks; insurgents sometimes use animals to pack their IEDs. An Iraq veteran mentions that he remembers an IED discovered in the body of a dead dog. A wheelbarrow with a yellow bucket looks suspicious, until someone gets eyes on it and sees ice in the container. An Afghan lurking by a house suddenly makes a cell-phone call and ducks around a corner. “Hey, that guy in brown just took off!” a driver yells. A second later, a concussive blast rocks the convoy. “IED! IED!” echoes in the intercom.After a few moments of damage assessment, the soldiers report the bomb went off ahead of the lead MRAP. No damage. No injuries. A driver spots another danger up ahead: a second IED, positioned to explode after the team dismounts. With the way blocked, the team resets its route. After coordinating with a circling Kiowa helicopter, the ADT convoy uses a dry riverbed as a road to continue its humanitarian mission in this insurgency-plagued tribal region of central Asia.“Closet Farmers Everywhere.” The Indiana National Guard Agribusiness Development Team, composed of agricultural experts and a security platoon, first deployed to Khost province, Afghanistan, in early 2009. The team is using sustainable, culturally appropriate agribusiness projects to improve the lives of Afghan farmers, who constitute 70 percent of the country’s population. The team’s five-year mission is part of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force’s counterinsurgency strategy, formulated to quell violence and increase the population’s confidence in the central government. Improve lives for farmers, the reasoning goes, and hostility toward the government will decrease. In an April Senate hearing, Central Command’s commander in chief, Gen. David Petraeus, lauded the ADTs and their work. “They get very good results,” he told the lawmakers. “They have all the attributes of soldiers, in terms of being able to secure themselves, move, shoot and communicate – and yet they’re also experts in agriculture.” Their mission is challenging. Adjacent to Pakistan’s unruly tribal areas, Khost has long been a center of Pashtun tribal insurgency and remains one of Afghanistan’s most violent places. “The information that has been presented to us is that Khost province is far and away the most kinetic of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan,” says Col. Brian Copes, ADT commander. “Kinetic simply meaning shooting and explosions and IEDs and indirect fire – artillery, mortar and rocket fire.” Out in this province, assassinations, beheadings and intimidation are common. Insurgents plant dozens of IEDs monthly. Last May, suicide bombers attacked the governor’s office in the provincial capital, Khost City, while he was meeting U.S. officers. Twenty people died in the daylong battle, including most of the attackers. The next day at the ADT’s nearby post, Forward Operating Base Salerno, a suicide bomber exploded a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) hidden in a truck just outside the post gate, killing nine Afghan civilian employees lined up for work. Soon after, five rockets fired from Pakistan hurtled toward the base, nicknamed “Rocket City” for the many attacks. Four landed harmlessly, but an errant one hit a mosque near the base, killing three worshipers. At FOB Salerno, a mortar round narrowly missed three ADT soldiers driving past the airfield. A Taliban ambush on a Khost road cost the life of Georgia National Guard 1st Sgt. John Blair, a gunner who was returning fire when an RPG exploded in his vehicle’s turret.The 64 soldiers of the Indiana National Guard 1-19th ADT include 16 agricultural specialists and a Force Protection and Security platoon of 35. All volunteers, the soldiers range in age from 20 to over 60. One soldier came out of retirement to be a part of the program. Deputy Commander Cindra Chastain – who grew up on a central Indiana farm not far from Purdue University, where she graduated with a degree in animal husbandry – postponed her retirement to be a part of it. “This mission is attractive to a soldier,” Chastain says about the extraordinary number of volunteers, many of whom come from Indiana’s rich agricultural tradition. “We had closet farmers everywhere,” laughs Copes, himself a farm boy from the wooded green hills of southeastern Indiana. One of a dozen National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams now in Afghanistan, the Indiana group is long on intelligence, credentials and cultural sensitivity. Capt. Robert Cline, a Hoosier farmer with an Indiana University law degree and a master’s in accounting, says, “You can’t swing a cat in here without hitting someone with advanced degrees.” The small team has a high number of officers – so many that enlisted men on the security platoon sometimes fret about telling them what to do. Both Purdue and Indiana University provided the ADT with Afghanistan-specific courses – Purdue with agricultural training, and IU with Afghan language, culture and politics.    The team’s success depends on its relations with provincial and local leaders. “Knowledge is something the Taliban cannot blow up or burn down,” Copes tells them. “They get that. Every time I’ve thrown that out, they get that. They understand that.” For instance, the team hopes to teach Afghans seed-cleaning techniques, which can improve yields by 10 percent or more. In turn, the ADT anticipates that those trained will become trainers, passing their knowledge on to others. Through a partnership with Shaikh Zayed University in Khost City, the ADT will also help train and finance agricultural extension agents, who will assist farmers out in the field. The team is also coordinating with the university’s journalism department to beam radio programs on farming to the country’s rural areas, to both educate and raise the profile of provincial agriculture leaders. The team is also spearheading sustainable, low-tech agricultural development, such as village-level irrigation projects. The semi-arid Khost landscape is “like being on Mars,” says ADT hydrologist Col. Kevin Sari, noting the effect of 30 years of warfare on the region’s traditional irrigation system; its destruction has caused widespread erosion and desiccation. In place of large, expensive dams that quickly silt up and are often little more than fronts for large-scale Afghan corruption, the ADT plans to facilitate small check-dams, built by villagers. The stacked-rock dams will slow the mountain streams down, allowing better irrigation and farming in the insurgency-prone hinterlands. The ADT assumes that military-age villagers receiving pay from the project will also be less likely to join the Taliban. Once the irrigation projects are under way, the ADT intends to plant the seared rangeland with a perennial high-protein forage kochia grass that will feed goats and sheep. Following that, trees will be planted to stabilize eroded watercourses and provide cash crops, such as walnuts.Animal-husbandry projects include a micro-business to make nutritional blocks for ruminants. The blocks will use mulberries, a prolific local fruit. Afghan farmers receiving training on hoof care will receive a set of basic tools, essential in this impoverished region where farm incomes are typically a few hundred dollars a year. The team will also encourage beekeeping and small-scale poultry production. For the poultry project, Chastain hopes to target widows, a particularly poor group in this very conservative Islamic region, where women are seldom even seen. “It’s going to be a tough nut to crack, but we’re going to try to grow some women’s businesses here,” she says. “Some self-respect enters into this.”War Zone to Bread Basket. In search of high-value specialty crops they can encourage farmers to grow, the ADT decides to conduct some market research at the Khost City bazaar, a multi-block warren of stalls and small open-front shops selling everything from fresh vegetables, meat and blocks of packed mountain snow to auto parts, pharmaceuticals and electronics.Shopping can be a challenge in a battleground like the Khost City bazaar, where assassinations are commonplace and IEDs a twice-weekly occurrence. Earlier in the week, an IED near a cell-phone shop killed two Afghans. Some of the fighting after the suicide attack on the governor’s office happened in the market. A week earlier, a slender, bearded Afghan officer told the ADT about visiting the bazaar with a fellow soldier. When other soldiers got out of their SUV, he neglected to close the door. Someone threw a grenade. The officer managed to dive out before it detonated, but the SUV’s charred hulk served as a grisly souvenir. The Force Protection and Security platoon must plan the bazaar mission over the course of several meetings. Seven minutes, they decide. More than that, and the risk of an attack is too great. After a couple of days planning their shopping trip, the platoon’s convoy of massive MRAPs rumbles up to the bustling bazaar. The security team piles out, fearsome in their body armor and personal weapons. Some stand perimeter duty. Others serve as bodyguards for the ag experts hurrying to vendors with their questions. “Salam aleykom (“peace be with you”),” Copes says to a vendor of nuts and dried fruit. “How much are the walnuts – the matak?” The colonel’s bodyguard waits behind him, solemnly scanning the marketers with his handgun’s safety button glowing red. The colonel asks, “How much for the shelled ones?” A crowd of Afghan men and boys clusters around, their turbans, skullcaps and visages reflecting every tribal group of central Asia. The colonel and his translator query: “Where are the walnuts raised? The almonds? The pistachios? How about the coconut?”They order a half-kilo of walnuts and some shriveled golden raisins. The crowd pushes closer. The guard keeps his eyes moving, checking for danger. A security commander spots a young man hurrying through the market with a cast-metal pressure cooker in a wheelbarrow, headed for the crowd. An assassin with a bomb? Operating under strict escalation-of-force rules, the security team’s dictum is to “be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill.” But it’s just a curious boy, drawn by the excitement. No threat. The MRAPs’ sirens whoop. Seven minutes are up. The colonel and his translator finish haggling with the vendor. “Let’s go,” the commander says. Another Khost foray ends successfully. Job accomplished, some acquaintances made, and no one is hurt. Soon the team is planning the next mission into the complicated situation that is Khost province, Afghanistan, a place where U.S. farmer-soldiers are taking careful, deliberate steps to create a bread basket from a war zone. As Copes says, “The environment has by no means crushed my optimism, but it has tempered it.”  Douglas Wissing has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, American Life, Forbes Life and Gray’s Sporting Journal.