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U.S. Army's farm program tackles Afghan rebuilding from the ground up

In a nation where furrows are plowed with oxen and seeds planted by hand, a band of American soldiers is helping farmers enter the modern age. 'Maybe they won't need the Taliban,' says one trainer.

July 26, 2009|David Zucchino

TARKMAH, AFGHANISTAN — Master Sgt. Colin Jones grew up on a farm in Nebraska and earned a degree in farm and ranch management.

Now he's gone back to Farming 101, having volunteered for military duty in Afghanistan, where he is helping drag crop practices out of the 19th century and forward to, say, 1940s America.

"You have to keep it simple and grounded," Jones said one sunny morning in this picturesque village, where he talked about fertilizer, invasive weeds and beekeeping with one of the top farmers in the area, the weather-beaten Sher Agah.

Jones, 44, a calm straight- talker from Elkhorn, Neb., is part of the U.S. Army's first agribusiness development team in Parwan province and three adjacent provinces in northeastern Afghanistan. On his sleeve he wears a cornstalk logo, the patch of Forward 28 ADT, a Nebraska National Guard unit.

Since October, Jones and six other specialists have bounced in armored vehicles along rutted roads to visit remote villages where farmers plow with oxen and plant seeds by hand. His team of volunteer guardsmen is here to help farmers increase yields, improve efficiency and modernize their growing and storage methods.

They have provided tractors, farm machinery and their own expertise. They're building vineyards and greenhouses while teaching irrigation, fertilizing and planting. They also lecture at Kabul University.

"If we can help them feed themselves and sustain their families, maybe they won't need the Taliban," Jones said.

In a country where 80% of working-age males are small-scale farmers, such a program might seem central to the rebuilding effort. Yet the U.S. military has just 350 agricultural specialists in a country of 31 million, covering nine of 34 provinces.

Using military discretionary funds, Jones' team operates in an obscure corner separate from America's civilian-funded reconstruction effort, which since 2001 has cost $7.9 billion.

For years, the United States has focused on eradicating opium poppies, by far Afghanistan's leading cash crop and foreign currency earner. Help for millions of subsistence farmers growing wheat, corn and other staples has been a lower priority.

The eradication program, called "a sad joke" by the director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, did nothing to prevent skyrocketing opium production after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Last month, Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, called opium eradication "a waste of money" because it puts farmers out of work and drives them toward the Taliban. Holbrooke said eradication efforts would be phased out in favor of arresting major drug traffickers and promoting alternative crops.

Holbrooke also said U.S. civilian agriculture assistance to Afghanistan would increase from tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions.

Jones said he didn't know whether any of that money would filter down to his military-funded team.

The Nebraska team operates in provinces where opium production is minimal because of the soil and climate conditions, so it isn't involved in eradication efforts.

Jones said he had provided seed corn and fertilizer to agriculture officials in southern Kapisa province, where some poppies are grown.

Mark Ward, a former official with the U.S. Agency for International Development who was responsible for Afghanistan and 25 other countries from 2004 to '08, said agricultural assistance here suffers from what he called a disjointed, "scattergun" approach to foreign development aid. Coordination among agencies has been poor, he said. He considers the arrival of the Nebraska team a case of better late than never.

"If you just give the United States military a clear plan and vision, they'll work wonders," Ward said.

Because the team operates in a war zone littered with land mines and roadside bombs, security alone is a full-time preoccupation. To visit two farmers and take measurements for a new vineyard and greenhouse one day in June, a security plan had to be submitted seven days in advance.

The farm team took along 18 heavily armed guardsmen in four bomb-resistant vehicles, as well as a medic and Afghan interpreter. In all, 51 soldiers protect the seven agricultural specialists, who also carry weapons.

It took four months for the team to hit the ground after it arrived in October, Jones said. First, members had to shop for seeds, tractors and other equipment.

"For those first few months, Google was my best friend," said Staff Sgt. William J. Jones, 35, a certified crop advisor from McCook, Neb.

The soldiers drink endless cups of tea with demanding farmers who often want money, medical care or jobs. At the same time, the team is trying to turn decision-making over to an Afghan Agriculture Ministry that had wallowed in incompetence until last fall, according to Ward, who now assesses development aid for the U.N.

"We work from the bottom up and the top down," Jones said. "It's not always a smooth process."

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