Agri-business development team plants seeds of hope for Afghan people

By Staff Sgt. Stacia ZacharyJuly 6, 2009

Missouri National Guard supports Afghan farmers
Sgt. Maj. Matthew Mullins, Nangarhar Agri-Business Development team chief, conducts a site survey in Rodat, Afghanistan, May 28. The Agri-Business Development Team is responsible for developing and monitoring projects which will improve the agricultu... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FINLEY-SHIELDS, Afghanistan -- At war in a country that has been devastated by centuries of fighting, the U.S. military is committed to helping Afghanistan attain a functional level of prosperity and self-sustainability through improved agricultural methods.

Teams of National Guardsmen from Missouri and 11 other farm-belt states are deploying to Afghanistan on year-long tours to assist in this effort. The Guardsmen bring with them more specialized skills than those of the usual advisory panels that typically helm projects such as these. This mission calls for military members with expertise in farming, raising livestock and cultivating natural resources.

The U.S. military recognized the necessity of such teams in late 2007 when reconstruction teams realized people in rural areas needed something more pressing than a new school or road. Across Afghanistan, these teams have been inundated with requests for help with farming and other agricultural endeavors.

The Nangarhar Province Agri-Business Development Team has focused on facilitating sustainable projects that aid the Afghan people in a manner that results in greater impact and more long-term benefits.

"We have a wide-range of programs geared at helping the Afghan people gain better farming practices and that often means providing basic systems such as wells and karizes to irrigate the crops," said Maj. Denise Wilkinson, ADT executive officer who is deployed from the Missouri Joint Force Headquarters. "We have projects with large budgets, but we have found that it's the small projects at little cost that have the biggest impact on the people who need our help the most."

Currently, the Nangarhar ADT has 74 active projects totaling $5.6 million.

Projects the team manages include:

- Building grain mills.

- Introducing new wheat seed.

- Developing canning and juicing factories for harvested vegetables and fruits.

- Building cool storage facilities to store harvested crops operated by solar panels.

- Overseeing micro-slaughter facilities to increase sanitization of livestock meat.

- Launching vet clinics focused on de-worming the livestock.

- Advising with reforestation projects.

- Increasing the crop yield for commercial use.

- Operating cold- and warm-water fish hatcheries.

"The real intent here is to show them how to harness the resources they've got," said Master Sgt. Richard Frink, a native of Carthage, Mo. "Once we do, you'll see a lot of change for the better, because they can take care of themselves."

The Missouri ARNG has a five-year commitment to the ADT mission in Nangarhar province. Currently on the second ADT iteration, the first team had the difficult task of finding a place to house the new project headquarters as well as building relations so work could begin.

"We have increased the projects being done by ten-fold from ADT One," said Sgt. Maj. Matthew Mullins, ADT team leader deployed from the 70th Troop Command, Missouri Joint Forces Headquarters. "While they had the difficult task of setting this whole thing up, we get to focus on the mission and get the projects moving so that we can really help these people out."

When convoying out to these rural districts in Nangarhar province, it's like stepping back in time and seeing how farming was done without the benefit of technology. Some methods the farmers use are antiquated, while others are shattered fragments of a farming community trying to harvest enough food to keep their families from starvation.

"There is a gross difference in the way we farm [in the U.S.] and the way these people have to," said the sergeant major, who co-owns 5,000 acres of Missouri farmland that has been in his family for more than 160 years. "We need to study our history of farming before the tractors and other equipment and give that know-how to the Afghans. By implementing old farming practices that were reliable and cost efficient, you stand a chance of helping these people trying to make something out of nothing."

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, they demolished the agricultural infrastructure under the guise of trying to stomp out insurgency. They broke the country and took away the people's ability to survive without their aid. Decades of warfare crippled the country by relegating the people to live by medieval standards.

"These are a people who have never been conquered and when the Soviets came, they tore this country up and what they didn't ruin, the Taliban took care of," said Mullins.

Over time, irrigation systems and other agricultural structures fell into disrepair or were destroyed. Farming practices such as crop rotation to preserve the land's integrity was ignored in order to grow enough food to feed families. As a result, land, which once thrived, is now barren.

The ADT believes that if it can give everyone an equal opportunity to be able to provide for themselves and their families, then local squabbles will lessen. If it does, this may be another way to counter insurgency.

"One side of the road is green while the other is dirt," said Mullins. "One family will starve while his neighbor's belly is full and that sets tempers off which the insurgents thrive on."

The Missouri ADT is trying a different approach to counterinsurgency than the Soviet regime. Afghans in rural, agricultural-dependent areas will be afforded the opportunity to become self-sufficient through the production of hearty crops and healthy livestock by giving then sustainable power with solar panels and water accessibility from wells, dams and karizes.

"If we can make it more evened out and give everyone a chance to harness the water for irrigation and farming, then we can help control the tempers," he said. "Hunger makes a person do almost anything - even look the other way when there's a bad guy around."

With three iterations left, the Nangarhar ADT has 26 projects worth $6.1 million being staffed for approval and an additional 95 future projects worth $14.2 million that will likely fall to ADT 3 to start and/or complete.

"This has been a true humanitarian experience for me," Mullins said. "Good things can come from what we're doing here and even when this team is gone, we'll still follow up on how the mission is going. We won't abandon this project."