National Guard farmers planting long-term Afghan stability

By Jim GaramoneJanuary 22, 2009

Media Roundtable
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Afghan Soil Samples
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WASHINGTON (AFPS, Jan. 22, 2009) - The members of agricultural development teams in Afghanistan are living examples of the symbol of the National Guard: a Minuteman with a musket in one hand and the other hand resting on a plow.

Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and Army National Guard Chief Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn spoke Thursday morning at a media roundtable about the capabilities these Citizen-Soldiers bring to development in Afghanistan's Ghazni province.

The men were joined via video teleconference from Afghanistan by Army Col. Stan Poe, who leads a team from the Texas National Guard, and Sultan Huessen Abasyar, the director of Ghazni's agriculture, irrigation and livestock office.

About 85 percent of Afghanistan's population is involved in agriculture, and any way forward in the country must take into account the critical link between prosperity and farming, Geren said.

The agriculture teams are exactly what his country needs, Abasyar said.

"For the U.S. Army to consider having teams like the [agribusiness development teams] -- concerned only with agriculture and advancement of improving agriculture in Afghanistan -- is in my opinion one of the best ways to not only help the people of Afghanistan improve their economy and living standards, but to help Afghanistan prosper as a nation for future generations," he said through a translator.

The Texas team has 58 members, 10 of them experts in various farm disciplines, Vaughn said. They help Afghan farmers with a variety of tasks including seeds, fertilizers, irrigation projects, electricity and soil analysis. The other members of the team are National Guard infantrymen, "but they all have a background in farming" the general said. So while the experts work with tribal and provincial leaders, the security forces also know a thing or two about how to put a crop in the ground.

The program is the outgrowth of the realization that more than just being Soldiers, the Guardsmen bring the expertise and knowledge of their civilian jobs, Vaughn said.

Security has not posed a problem for the teams to date, both Geren and Poe said, and members work closely with the U.S.-run provincial reconstruction team in Ghazni.

The teams have ties back to universities and organizations in the United States. The Texas team can call on state-of-the-art communications to contact world-class professionals at Texas A&M University in College Station. The Texas A&M staff helped the Guardsmen with soil analysis and suggested crops that might succeed in the province's arid conditions.

Water is the limiting factor in Ghazni, Vaughn said. "A lack of water is not the problem in Afghanistan," the general said. "The management of the water is the problem."

Mountain snowmelt runs out of the mountain ranges and off the land, with few catchments to stop the run-off and put it to work. Poe said his team has put in dams on some streams that lengthened the growing season in Ghazni by a month. The water-management activities also work to prevent floods and control erosion. The team additionally is working on micro-generators for farms and putting in place windmills and solar-power collectors to give Afghan farmers the current they need.

The team is looking to build jobs in industries that take their raw materials from farming as well, Poe said. Members are working with local government officials to put in a feed lot for cattle, and helping to construct a building that local butchers can use to slaughter animals. They are building a tanning facility for the hides and looking at methods to increase cold storage. They also are exploring the idea of a wool-washing facility. All of these projects will create jobs.

The team also is working to foster agriculture education.

"They lost a generation of farmers" Vaughn said, referring to the Soviet-Afghan war, which began in 1978 and ended in 1989, followed by a civil war. The team works with Afghan officials to put agricultural courses in the local schools, and the partnership with Texas A&M has helped to train teachers and provide materials.

The first agribusiness team came from the Missouri National Guard and deployed to Nangahar province. The Missouri team has been in Ghazni since May and is slated to be replaced by another Texas team. Officials said they are mobilizing teams from Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois and other states.

"This is what we need for long-term solutions in Afghanistan," Vaughn said. "This is a poor country, and if we can improve the way they farm, we are making a huge contribution to stability in the nation."

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