Wardak Team
Lt. Col. Matt McFarlane and Gary Soiseth stand on a mountaintop overlooking arable land in Wardak province, Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 24, 2011) -- Students at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute learned Monday about some the challenges and successes of working within the complex political and cultural landscape of Afghanistan.

"I wanted to share what our military/civilian team learned over the past year in Wardak province, about 45 miles from Kabul, with these students who will go to work in the policy arena and apply some of these lessons at the ground level," said Lt. Col. Matt McFarlane, who commanded the lethal and non-lethal activities of the 1st Battalion (Airborne) 503rd Infantry in Afghanistan.

As part of a presentation at Georgetown University, March 21, McFarlane was joined by former team members Gary Soiseth, an adviser with the Department of Agriculture; Jeff Stanton, a State Department representative; and Doug Blanton, a stabilization officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development. The four worked together for about a year in Wardak. Both McFarlane and Soiseth are also Georgetown University Public Policy Institute alumnus.

FARMERS' ASSOCIATION

The Wardak province had been known in the past as "the breadbasket of Afghanistan." But after years of civil unrest, the province no longer produces the abundance of apples, apricots, potatoes and other crops it once did.

Each member of McFarlane's team recounted the failures and successes of working with local leaders in Afghanistan who had extensive knowledge in their subject area, while also discussing strategies on how to turn the proverbial lemon into lemon juice, or in the case of Wardak, apples into currency.

"Agriculture touches something within the Afghan people," said Blanton, who during his time in Afghanistan was able to quietly sit in on a shura (a meeting of elders) because he could understand Farsi, the most widely spoken Persian language in the country.

"They like to go around and talk about 'the apples I grow in my orchard are the biggest in the world,' or 'the melons I grow are the biggest and the best,' and they're really proud of it. It's the one thing that's healthy, and that keeps them busy," Blanton said.

It's an identity thing," said Soiseth. "Wardak is known for its apples. Another province is known for their potatoes, and another for its pomegranates. Agriculture increases the quality of life."

AGRI EDUCATION

"The education system needs to be focused on to support the agriculture system, support business, and support the government," Soiseth said.

"Probably the single most important thing we did there was start a farmers' association," Blanton said.

Wardak, located 7,000 feet above sea level, has a lot of apple orchards, and the team was able to help them start selling their apples in Kabul, Dubai and India.

In the past, buyers might purchase an entire orchard, with the apples still on the trees, for a rock-bottom price. Because of that, farmers weren't making any money. The farmers' association helped them export apples, and start turning a profit.

The Afghan government officials, Blanton explained, are a major resource, especially those who are honest and who can actually execute within their area.

"I had an Afghan employee who worked for me who was extremely helpful because he was from the province and he was honest and very effective," Blanton said. "He was key in helping us start a farmers' association. In fact, if we had started without him, it would probably have been ill-conceived."

He added that the association really helped turn the tide in the district. Wardak is now going to be turned into a transition district.

Getting the apples to market, though, is at the end of a long list of short-term projects that lead up to this long-term goal of providing a better future for the Wardak people.

STABILIZATION

"When I first got to Wardak, I realized you could use stabilization programs. One that I managed was putting people to work, doing infrastructure projects. The main purpose of these short-term projects was to hire people," Blanton said.

Two sources of wealth in the district are agriculture and minerals, which would require many years before they could be brought to the surface. Blanton said it was important to focus on what source of wealth could be exploited immediately.

"Agriculture was functioning now, so that's where we put all of our resources," Blanton said. "You can't play around for two or three years preparing to get a long-term project underway. You need to get something started right away."

The team emphasized that the short-term and long-term projects need to be done simultaneously. So it's important to encourage people to begin building a school, digging a well or developing the irrigation system so they'll see some tangible evidence that progress is being made.

"What the short-term is doing is buying us time and giving us space so that we can safely operate and do that long-term capacity building," Stanton said.

Blanton added that agriculture is so crucial that the education system needs to be focused on agriculture. This thirst for knowledge about building their economy would fuel their quest for education, he said.

PROTECTION MAJOR CONCERN

With the military conducting both counterinsurgency operations and building the capacity of the Afghan national security forces, safety for these teams who are developing long-term economic programs is a major concern.

Afghanistan, often called the crossroads of Central Asia, has had a turbulent history. It saw Alexander the Great in 328 B.C., Genghis Khan in 1219, and the Taliban in the mid-1990s. The turbulence continues.

"They've seen army units come and go and so listening to them on their thoughts and how to move forward in a very difficult area of operations was key to moving forward with their quality of life," said McFarlane, who made sure his Soldiers understood the importance of helping the team assist the Afghans.

"We were doing so much with our civilian efforts that we needed to synchronize with our military efforts," McFarlane said. "We had targeting meetings where we targeted enemy forces for the Army. But because we're doing both lethal and non-lethal, we often prioritized all the non-lethal right up there with the lethal, or often, before the lethal targets because of the effects it would have with the people."

He added that the Army has always been on board with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's and now Gen. David Petraeus' guidance that the people are the focus.

"We need to ensure that we are protecting the people when we're doing our operations," McFarlane said.

The team had to work in an environment that was both complex and dangerous.

"We absolutely had to work with the Soldiers, and they had to work with us. That's a tough pill to swallow sometimes, because we're all given guidance to go out and make it happen," Stanton said.

McFarlane was given credit for ensuring that his Soldiers knew this.

"As long as this guidance came down from McFarlane, these guys would be saying, 'hey, when this agriculture guy shows up, he's going to be really random and he's going to be a tad spacey, and just go with it, just work with him and get him to where he needs to go, allow him to go on patrol.' That's what matters," Soiseth said.

All the team members agreed that it was the Soldiers who actually talked with the Afghans who made the difference.

"They understood," Soiseth said. "'The 'hearts and minds' sometimes was a term that was laughed at, but the Soldiers understood. When I showed up and we talked about different projects we were doing, they understood what was important to certain villages."

Each member of the team was partnered with someone within the Afghan leadership. McFarlane partnered with the local militia force, Stanton was with the Wardak governor, and Blanton worked with three line directors and with the governor.

COORDINATION

At the embassy in Afghanistan, the coordinating agency is called the Inter-agency Provincial Affairs.

"The IPA is the coordinating agency that takes in people from the various agencies and funnels them in the field where we basically met and began working together, said Stanton, who mentioned the office is fairly new because not many civilians worked in the field prior to 2009.

"At the time I arrived in June 2009, there were approximately 32 civilians in the field," Stanton said. "At this point, we've got over 300. That's a huge increase, not only in the field, but in support people at the embassy. It's been a struggle for IPA to keep up with that, but considering the environment we're working in, they've done a fantastic job."

Soiseth told the students and professors at Georgetown what it was like when he arrived.

"We were sent out into the field all about the same time. As soon as I got there, Blanton came in about a week later and plopped down every project that had agriculture attached to it and told me to look at all of it and change what I thought needed changing or add what I could add to it," said Soiseth, adding that he's since been with another group in the south of the country that hasn't had the same working relationship.

He said he noticed the watershed aspects of the reports and that's how work began.

"It was an immediate merging and we just kind of went from there," Soiseth said. "It's not regimented. You just get on the ground, meet with each other and start talking."

MESHING PERSONALITIES

The team set up shop in a small room where they shared a table and laptop computers, remembered McFarlane.

"We have a very small area where we could communicate with each other, so we could understand what everyone was doing and what they could bring to the fight, if you will, and everybody had a lot to bring to the fight," McFarlane said.

In these daily huddles, they found out each other's strengths and weaknesses.

"It was easy for us," remembered McFarlane. "We provided security for them when they went out on a mission of either improving development or governance. We just made sure we included that in our operational priorities."

All four remembered the reason for their success was that their personalities meshed together so well.

"Our success was personality-driven to a large extent. Certainly we're all experts in our own areas, but that kind of synergy to move forward, I could not have asked for anything better. I don't think I'll ever find a team as good as these guys, and that's to everyone's credit here," Stanton said.

TWO-WAY STREET

Success, they all agreed, was due in large part to McFarlane's sense of inclusiveness between the team members and the Soldiers who provided the security.

"My job was two-pronged," Soiseth said. "I advised government officials, such as the director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock and helped train and work with a lot of extension agents, talking with them about budget and strategy, for example."

Soiseth also said that part of his job was to work directly with the military.

"I lived on a base and I would go out on patrols and learn the area of operations with these guys and tell them how to interact with farmers," said Soiseth, who grew up on an almond ranch in California before becoming one of 60 agriculture advisers the USDA sent to Afghanistan.

Coordination between the various areas of government turned out to be one of their major weaknesses, said the team.

"Had we not coordinated together and known what each area of Afghan government was doing, it probably would not have been put together and there probably would have been duplication of effort in at least some areas," Stanton said.

LOOKING AHEAD

Progress is now being made in Wardak on many fronts.

"When I came back to the province after four months in southern Afghanistan, I saw that they had taken what we taught them and were still doing it," Soiseth said. "They looked at the example of what we did over the last year and said, 'we can keep doing this.'"

"It was something, coming back and seeing an owner walk in with his cow for artificial insemination and for the cow to be healthy enough to actually receive it," Soiseth said.

Editor's note: The Georgetown Public Policy Institute's course of study helps develop rigorous policy analysis skills and an understanding of the political and policymaking processes. Georgetown Public Policy Institute then provides the opportunity to apply these core skills to specific policy problems in areas such as education and social policy, children's issues, housing, health care, the environment, nonprofit and public-sector management, international development policy, electoral politics, tax policy, crime, and homeland security.

Page last updated Thu March 24th, 2011 at 16:44