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Cultivating Afghanistan: Finding Profit in Farming

As part of its mission in Afghanistan, the Indiana National Guard's Agribusiness Development Team must determine which products farmers should raise.

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In order to improve the lives of Afghan farm families, the ADT is searching for high-value agricultural products for farmers to raise. To research opportunities, Commander Col. Brian Copes leads his team into the heart of the dangerous Khost City market, site of many recent IEDs and assassinations. But after a designated amount of time, a siren sounds and the team must leave, in order to be safe.

Finding high-value products for impoverished Pashtun tribal farmers to cultivate is vital to Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency strategy, Col. Copes said. With 70% of Afghans working as farmers, the country’s government needs to revive its agricultural capacity to regain the trust of the rural population.

“In the very broadest sense, we’re involved in a counterinsurgency to try to separate the enemy, the anti-Afghan forces, from the Afghan population,” Copes said. “To transform the environment so that Afghan people have a different quality of life; a better quality of life, where they live in a safe and secure environment so they will be able to benefit from the fruits of their labor, and hope that their kids do better than they do.”

The ADT has identified walnuts, pine nuts and honey as potential money-making crops. However, the ADT must also determine if encouraging beekeeping will destabilize tribal relations, as certain tribes monopolize the bee trade.

The ADT is also committed to long-term agricultural training. Col. Copes said he pushes the importance of education in conversations with tribal leaders.

“What I say is that knowledge is something that the Taliban can’t take away, and will last long after the coalition forces have left and out money is gone. Knowledge is something the Taliban cannot blow up or burn down. They get that. Every time I’ve thrown that out, they get that; they understand that.”

To improve agricultural education, the ADT is partnering with the Khost provincial government. Part of the initiative includes the support of agricultural extension agents, who will bring modern farming techniques into the villages. The ADT is also forging a relationship with Shaikh Zayed University in Khost City with support for a model farm and agricultural education. Maj. Ronald Crane said there’s also a program helping the school’s journalism department beam radio programs on farming to the rural areas.

“Basically, we are going to help send a message to the people of the Khost Province that the agricultural leaders of the province are here for them. We want to tie the people and the community to their government.”

But insurgents find other ways of disrupting the partnership. The school’s chancellor says a recent Taliban threat caused the cancellation of an ADT meeting on campus, forcing it to be held instead at the ADT’s fortified Forward Operating Base Salerno.

“Two weeks ago we had one night letter… from the Taliban side,” the Chancellor said through an interpreter. “Today that we cancelled the meeting; we did not want that. If you guys come over, some people will kill us. To protect your life and protect the university, we…decide to have the meeting here.”

But, in spite of the Taliban threats, it’s clear the Chancellor wants to continue the relationship, and even expand it.

Next week: a focus on the ADT force protection and security team.

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