U.S. Air Forces Central Combat Camera
FORWARD OPERATING BASE FINLEY-SHIELDS, Afghanistan (AFNS) — Teams of National Guardsmen from Missouri and 11 other farm-belt states are deploying to Afghanistan on year-long tours to help the country attain a level of self-sustainability through improved agricultural methods. These teams are called Agri-Business Development Teams and are made up of Guardsmen who have expertise in farming, raising livestock and cultivating natural resources.
The Department of Defense recognized the necessity for these teams in late 2007, when people throughout Afghanistan started asking the reconstruction teams for help with farming and other agricultural endeavors, according to a Combined Joint Task Force 101 press release.
“We have a wide-range of programs geared at helping the Afghan people gain better farming practices, and that often means providing basic systems such as wells and karizes to irrigate the crops,” said Army Maj. Denise Wilkinson, ADT executive officer deployed from the Missouri Joint Force Headquarters. “We have projects with large budgets, but we have found that it’s the small projects at little cost that have the biggest impact on the people who need our help the most.”
Currently, the Nangarhar Province ADT has 74 active projects totaling $5.6 million. These projects range from building grain mills to introducing new wheat seed and creating veterinary clinics focused on livestock de-worming.
“The real intent here is to show them how to harness the resources they’ve got,” said Army Master Sgt. Richard Frink, ADT member. “Once we do, you’ll see a lot of change for the better, because they can take care of themselves.”
The Missouri ARNG has a five-year commitment to the ADT mission in the Nangarhar Province, and two teams have already started work in the area.
“We have increased the projects being done by ten-fold from ADT 1,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Matthew Mullins, ADT team leader. “While they had the difficult task of setting this whole thing up, we get to focus on the mission and get the projects moving so that we can really help these people out.”
Afghan farmers use methods that are drastically different from those used by their U.S. counterparts. For the ADT members, it’s like stepping back in time.
“There is a gross difference in the way we farm and the way these people have to,” Sergeant Mullins said. “We need to study our history of farming before the tractors and other equipment and give that know-how to the Afghans. By implementing old farming practices that were reliable and cost efficient, you stand a chance of helping these people trying to make something out of nothing.”
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the agricultural infrastructure was destroyed under the guise of trying to stomp out insurgency. The Soviets broke the country and took away the people’s ability to survive on their own. Decades of warfare crippled the country by relegating the people to live by medieval standards.
“These are a people who have never been conquered and when the Soviets came, they tore this country up and what they didn’t ruin, the Taliban took care of,” Sergeant Mullins said.
Over time, irrigation systems and other agricultural structures fell into disrepair or were destroyed. Farming practices, such as crop rotation to preserve the land’s integrity, were ignored in order to grow enough food to feed families. As a result, land, which once thrived, is now barren.
The ADT believes that teaching the people how to farm and grow their own food will lessen local squabbles.
“One side of the road is green while the other is dirt,” Sergeant Mullins said. “One family will starve while his neighbor’s belly is full and that sets tempers off which the insurgents thrive on.”
“If we can make it more evened out and give everyone a chance to harness the water for irrigation and farming, then we can help control the tempers,” he said. “Hunger makes a person do almost anything — even look the other way when there’s a bad guy around.”
The ADT mission requires a lot of planning, discussions with tribal leaders and site visits before projects can even begin. To help with much of the initial leg work, subsequent project assessments and quality control checks, the team has local nationals who work with them.
“The Afghan engineers who work with us do the site recon and QA and QC checks,” Major Wilkinson said. “This is both safer and more expeditious for us. It also puts an Afghan face on these projects which help gain local support for them. The Afghans have more pride in it if it’s something they are creating instead of us just building it.”
There are times when the ADT project managers must visit the sites themselves and ensure everything is going according to specifications. On these trips, joint security forces teams provide convoy security to ensure safe travel out to project locations.
“We get them out there safely and provide them with 360-degree security,” said Senior Airman Eric Moe, a security forces member. “Their focus needs to be on the construction and the contractors and keeping up good relations. This limits them from seeing potential risks. That’s where we come in — we take that factor out of their hands so they can concentrate on their mission.”
With three iterations left, the Nangarhar ADT has 26 projects worth $6.1 million being staffed for approval and an additional 95 future projects worth $14.2 million that will likely fall to ADT 3 to start or complete.
“This has been a true humanitarian experience for me,” Sergeant Mullins said. “Good things can come from what we’re doing here and even when this team is gone, we’ll still follow up on how the mission’s going. We won’t abandon this project.”