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News - Kentucky National Guard Unit Helps Farmers in Afghanistan

  • July 16, 2010

Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan -- It’s a story as old as Kentucky frontiersmen: farmers laying down their plows to bear arms for their country. The Kentucky National Guard Agribusiness Development Team (ADT) is a small, elite unit of citizen-soldiers, many with agricultural backgrounds, who are on a mission to improve the lives of impoverished Afghan farmers in insurgency-plagued central Afghanistan. As part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, the ADT intends for their agricultural programs to help bond the Afghan people to their government and reduce the Taliban insurgency. Think of the Kentucky Agribusiness Development Team as a kind of Peace Corps with guns.

Headed up by twelve officers, the 63 men and women of the ADT are from both the Kentucky Army and Air Force National Guard. The unit includes about a dozen agricultural specialists, led by Lt. Colonel Ruth Graves, who is from Franklin, Kentucky, where she has a 600-acre farm. The balance of the team includes a headquarters staff and substantial security platoon. Facing a ubiquitous and unpredictable Taliban threat, the team is heavily armed, traveling on their humanitarian missions in convoys of massive, armored vehicles called MRAPs (short for Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected), with gunners manning machine guns and automatic grenade launchers in the turrets. “Kentucky has had their hand in this fight from the beginning,” says ADT commander Colonel Mike Farley, a University of Cumberland graduate from Corbin, who brought his apple-orchard experience to this most unique battle. Kentucky was among the first five states to deploy ADTs to Afghanistan. Col. Farley’s team is the first of five Kentucky ADTs committed to the mission.

This team of extreme ag agents has a rough territory to cover: more than 9,000 square miles of dun-colored mountains, rugged arable valleys and sere ranges that sprawl over four provinces. Parwan Province surrounds the enormous Bagram Air Field, where the ADT is based. Panjshir Province includes the legendary valley where tribesmen resisted both the Soviet army and the Taliban. Bamyan Province is the homeland of the Hazarans, descendents of Genghis Khan’s Mongol armies, and the locale of the monumental carved 6th-century Buddha statues that the Taliban destroyed. Kapisa is a mountainous province that is about half-controlled by the Taliban. The ADT works with a welter of oft-squabbling tribes, which includes Pashtun, Hazaran, Tajik, Uzbek, Qizilbash and other groups. Nomadic Kuchis, infamous for their independent ways, add further spice to the mix.

The ADT agricultural development mission is critical to the counterinsurgency. About 85% of the Afghans are dependent on farming for their livelihoods. Typical Afghan farmers are trying to sustain enormous families with food grown on about a half-acre to an acre of ground, often using beasts of burden to pull wooden plows. In this calorie-deficient land where people often slowly starve in the winter, the per capita income is about $400 a year.

The ADT projects range from vineyard, woodlot and orchard development to honey bees, poultry, agricultural equipment, greenhouses, food storage and irrigation projects. Lt. Colonel Carney Jackson, a University of Kentucky veterinarian from Richmond, is leading efforts to improve veterinary practices in this land of gaunt cattle, goats and sheep. The ADT has incorporated their broad range of projects into the Circle of Life, which they envision as a comprehensive village sustainment program that can support five to six thousand people. The Circle of Life includes wells, micro-dams and irrigation, as well as Afghan-appropriate programs to increase yields with such techniques as improved seed cleaning, grape-arbor trellising and fruit-tree pruning. The Kentuckians are also providing assistance with high-value Afghan crops that include saffron and pomegranates — a far fling from the crops of the Bluegrass State. Projecting forward to when the Afghans can create a surplus, the ADT is also pioneering cool storage units: Amish-style root cellars. Sometimes it seems like the ADT is helping Afghan farmers move from 13th-century techniques to those of the late 19th. Though antiquated by American standards, the improved farming techniques are sustainable in this poor land, and can have an immense positive impact.

There is a major focus on education, with the ADT agricultural specialists training Afghan extension agents to further train Afghan farmers — “training the trainers,” in military jargon. There’s also a major push to “put on Afghan face” on development work, with the ADT endeavoring to partner with Afghan provincial ministries, particularly the Department of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL).

However, with widespread corruption in Afghanistan, working with the Afghan government can be a frustrating job. “What government?” Col. Farley asked as he talked about tribal conflicts that play out in government offices, ghost employees who only show up for paydays, and officials lacking even basic organizational skills.

But in spite of the dangers and the challenges, the Kentucky farmer-soldiers persist in their complicated mission to win the hearts and minds of Afghan farmers. It is a constant battle. Col. Farley says, “We ask ourselves, ‘How can we be smarter?’ We’re just trying to be smarter.”

About the Author: Douglas Wissing is an award-winning journalist and author. He is working on a book about development and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. You can view some of his work at www.douglaswissing.com.

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