by DAVID AXE
Eighty-five percent of Afghans work in agriculture. In Logar, a wheat- and fruit-growing province 50 miles south of Kabul, the percentage is even higher. When NATO forces arrived in strength in Logar two years ago, commanders quickly realized they would have to speak the language of farming in order to improve ties with local residents and hopefully boost the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
Today, that vital task falls to a specialized team of U.S. Army agricultural experts from a western U.S. state that one expert says reminds him a lot of Logar. The 63-person Nevada Agribusiness Development Team, one of nine such teams currently deployed to Afghanistan, is “on the cutting edge of counter-insurgency,” according to Col. Johnny Isaak, the team commander.
The ADT concept originated in 2007, when the Army realized it was not getting adequate support in Afghanistan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development. To replace these civilian agencies, the Army asked the National Guards of rural U.S. states to form the ADTs. The first teams were on the ground in Afghanistan by late 2007; the program’s mandate expires in 2013, just one year before the last major U.S. combat unit is slated to leave Afghanistan.
Each ADT comprises around a dozen officers with farming backgrounds — “farmers with guns,” is how Isaak describes them — plus another 50 or so administrative and security troops. Every ADT is organized slightly differently, depending on where in Afghanistan it works. The Nevada ADT covers Bamyan and Wardak provinces in addition to Logar, requiring it to maintain semi-autonomous “branch offices.” Moreover, ADTs must adapt to local needs.
In Logar, the needs are threefold, Isaak says. Logar residents need better food security, improved access to cash crops and a better understanding of markets. One ADT initiative addresses all three needs.
“Most of their trees are pollinated by the wind,” Isaak explains. “You can increase your yield on apples by almost 50 percent by putting bees out there and letting them pollinate them.” Bigger apple crops can help feed farming families through long, unproductive winters. Not only that, beekeeping — or “apiculture” — also produces honey, itself a major cash crop. Since it is dense and does not spoil, honey is easily exported by road and air.
Working with provincial agricultural officials, the Nevada ADT has provided hives to newly trained beekeepers. Meanwhile, the ADT is trying to educate Logar residents about honey’s true value. In the province’s markets, products marked “honey” are actually mixtures of real honey plus large amounts of sugar or other fillers. This bastardized blend is not marketable outside of Logar, but the province’s pure honey, being unusually sweet owing to the preponderance of fruit trees, is. Using billboards emblazoned with simple, graphical messages, the ADT and its Afghan government partners are preaching the virtues of the real thing.
They hope, in time, to link up Logar’s beekeepers with local transportation firms and air freight companies flying out of Kabul. The result could be one of Afghanistan’s major agricultural exports since the economic collapse that accompanied the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
Isaak’s team arrived in Logar in August and is scheduled to depart after a year in country. A fresh ADT from Georgia will replace the Nevada team. Isaak explains he’ll miss the country, which he says reminds him of northern Nevada. But, he adds, he won’t miss the danger. Logar is generally less violent than many other eastern provinces. Still, the Nevada ADT has been targeted several times by rocket teams and gunmen, and the team’s interpreters — and even Isaak himself — have been threatened by the Taliban. Affiliates of the extremist group have even attended meetings between Isaak and local officials and farmers. He says the Taliban are easy to spot at the meetings, as none of the farmers will sit near them.