U.S. Planting Seeds of Peace in Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers work to undo some of the damage done to Afghanistan's agricultural communities from decades of war.
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Samuel Rance speaks with a twang and his favorite band is Tool. One morning last spring, he was sitting at a picnic table on Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Afghanistan, seven months into his deployment. His team had just finished Operation Thrasher, a training class in composting for farmers in the nearby city of Khost. Behind him were several acres of wheat and fruit trees, and a greenhouse. He and his team members — the Indiana National Guard’s 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team — had planted the grain and the trees, and built the greenhouse. Beyond the farm were the barracks for some of the 5,000 soldiers and civilian contractors stationed at Salerno; behind the barracks towered the mountains that form the border with Pakistan. Most mornings, Apache helicopters riddled the hillsides with rockets for target practice.

Rance grew up on a farm in rural Indiana. In 1992, at the age of 18, he joined the United States Army. Before he was 20, he was fighting in Mogadishu; before he was 21, he was patrolling in Port-au-Prince, in Operation Uphold Democracy. After three years, Rance moved back home to join the Indiana National Guard, work for John Deere, and help run his wife’s family’s 2,500-acre farm.

When he was redeployed, in 2009, with a rank of chief warrant officer, Rance was given the choice between two assignments in Afghanistan: a battlefield brigade or the Agribusiness Development Team — a military initiative that has National Guardsmen training locals in, for example, veterinary care, beekeeping, and wheat farming. “When I was in Somalia,” he said, “I was involved in kicking in doors and roughing people up. I look at it as the beginning of my career. Now, towards the end of my career, I wanted to actually go and help somebody.” He chose the agricultural team.

Traveling in Afghanistan’s countryside, you see crumbling irrigation systems and markets selling boxes of fruits and vegetables imported from Pakistan. Decades of war have destroyed Afghanistan’s infrastructure and diminished its farming capacity. Displacement and death have disrupted agricultural communities and families. As Rance explained, “Some people are still able to talk to their grandparents and get that knowledge, but others, all they know is war.”

The development teams are a bold experiment in the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. During the teams’ one-year rotations, troops work directly with local farmers, universities, and government ministries. Most teams have about 12 members with backgrounds in agriculture, and about 40 infantry soldiers who provide security for the team missions.

The Jan-Feb 2012
Miller-McCune

This article appears in our Jan-Feb 2012 issue under the title "A Fine Crop of Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan." To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
Jan-Feb 2012 magazine page.

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In the 1980s, the National Guard carried out agriculture projects in Central America, but this is arguably the first war in which the military has so explicitly used development as a battlefield tactic. “We do help people, but that’s not our goal,” explained Lt. Col. Reid Smith, a civil-affairs commander in Afghanistan. “Our goal is: by helping people, help the commander in our sector win their fight.”

Indeed, in the spirit of the “Petraeus Doctrine,” which argues that the use of force is just one of many tools that should be utilized in a counterinsurgency, the military is hoping that by revitalizing Afghanistan’s agriculture sector, it can strengthen the still-feeble centralized government, develop local economies, and stabilize communities vulnerable to insurgents. The first agricultural team arrived from Missouri in 2008; today, nine such teams are on rotation in Afghanistan, two of them in the most dangerous provinces for coalition forces, Kandahar and Kunar.

Some development and security experts have lauded the teams as an example of what the U.S. has done right in Afghanistan. Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, writes, “They’re doing the difficult, and quite ‘unsexy’ teaching-the-Afghans-to-fish kind of work that will actually achieve some sort of local stability and long-lasting economic development.”

This past spring, I met John Noer, a development economist embedded with the military in Afghanistan. He told me that agriculture teams “are the only game in the provinces other than a few NGOs. … They can move, shoot, and communicate, and they can do development ops in a hostile environment.”

Programs like Operation Thrasher are funded through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, a special military fund started during the Iraq War for reconstruction projects. In a couple of days, Rance was headed out on Operation Barn Swallow, a mission to deliver chickens to farmers in Khost province. The 3-19th’s security team gives its operations names like Pumpkin Patch or Spring Rain, belying the grave risks involved.

Each operation requires days of planning and reconnaissance to determine the safest routes to the destination. When the team goes beyond the perimeter, or “wire,” of the base, it’s with at least 20 armed infantry soldiers in a convoy of six or more mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, each outfitted with .50-caliber machine guns. A contingent of the Afghan National Security Forces is often present as well.

Noer believes military involvement in development work is going to become even more crucial in the future. “If the international community is going to reach out and provide assistance, it has to do so in partnership with military forces,” he says. “You cannot survive in Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia or any of these places without rifles.”

For 1st Lt. Jesse Hardy, the 24-year-old leader of the 3-19th security unit, the objective of these missions — delivering apple trees or solar dehydrators — can be psychologically challenging. “Anytime [on base], you could get hit by a rocket, a mortar could come in, a sniper could fire on you. Those same risks exist when you go outside the wire, but then you’ve got to add the complexity of a suicide bomber, IEDs, complex attacks, ambushes,” Hardy explains. “Why am I taking the risk to go out and do this? We try to tie it back to the bigger picture. You’re going out to give these farmers chickens so that they have trust in their government.”

As Col. Walter Colbert, commander of the 3-19th, explained to me, agriculture teams are about linking citizens to their government and giving them livelihoods, so they are less vulnerable to insurgents. “The mission here is not agriculture,” Colbert said. “The mission is counterinsurgency.”

Rance told me he would deploy again with an agribusiness team. “I believe in what the mission is doing,” he said. “I’ve always been told at home, ‘If you’re going to make a change, it’s never for your kids, it’s for your grandkids.’” The same, he said, applies to Afghanistan, where the results of the agribusiness teams efforts may take years to become visible.

But its questionable if he’ll get the chance — especially in the age of budget cuts; the Obama administration is planning to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014, and in August, a report issued by the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting recommended a reduction in funding for the Agribusiness Development Teams.

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