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Cultivating Afghanistan: Turning Dams Into Walls

Despite the best-laid plans of the Agribusiness Development Team, sometimes there are still walls built -- literally -- between villagers and the military.

  • A photo of villagers building a check dam

    Image 1 of 4

    Photo: Douglas Wissing

    The ADT contract stipulated the workers needed to come from Shobo Khel and Zanda Khel. More than 150 impoverished villagers earned high wages, by Afghan standards, building the dams that will provide them improved irrigation and erosion control.

  • Two military men talk with the Afghan contractor overseeing a dam-building project.

    Image 2 of 4

    Photo: Douglas Wissing

    Col. Sari and Sgt. Joyce meet with contractor failing to meet Scope of Work, as part of the ADT's extensive QC/QA process.

  • A photo of villagers in Shobo Khel, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

    Image 3 of 4

    Photo: Douglas Wissing

    Villagers in Shobo Khel, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

  • A photo of village elders walking along a riverbed.

    Image 4 of 4

    Photo: Douglas Wissing

    The ADT dam project included a great amount of time with the tribal and village elders of Shobo Khel and Zanda Khel villages, which adjoin the wadi (seasonal riverbed) where the work took place.

The soldiers of the Agribusiness Development Team are now almost a year into their mission to improve Afghan lives in volatile Khost Province. It’s been a challenging, often frustrating job in this conservative, rebellious region, where even quality control can be dangerous.

The soldiers climb up a steep, dry riverbed to oversee a water project—the ADT’s tenth oversight visit. The ADT hired an Afghan contractor to build 87 small rock dams to reduce soil erosion and improve irrigation. The $200,000 spent on the project includes money to hire local villagers to build the dams. But the team is concerned to learn that instead of building dams, a hundred village workers spent 20 days building high stone walls along the river.

Earlier in the day, ADT hydrologist Sgt. Richard Joyce learned the local headmaster is supervising the project, rather than the contractor’s engineer—a violation of Afghan law.

“Downtown, she said talk to the headmaster. Today they finish the walls. Tomorrow they start on the check dams,” Joyce said he was told.

Joyce and ADT commander Col. Brian Copes try to understand where the project got off track.

“This is all wall they built?”, Joyce asks.

“Yeah, 1,300 meters of it,” Copes responds.

“It has nothing to do with the contract?”

“Yes and no. There was some area—when we say ‘rip-rap’ we kind of mean putting rocks along a bank. Their concept of it is building a wall.

The soldiers agree to take the contractor to task. And when the team talks to the village headmaster, he also rails at the corrupt contractor.

“He say, ‘That is why Afghanistan is not become a very good country,” the team heard through an interpreter.  “‘That’s the main problem. If the Afghan people get their project from you guys, and also the contractor is doing a good job, and the engineer too, because they really doesn’t have a good quality.’”

Just then, an Afghan passes a warning to Sari about a possible attack.

“They say they got guys up on the ridge they don’t know. That’s one of our guys there.”

While this was a false alarm, the constant Taliban danger requires the ADT to travel in armored MRAPs with a full security team. On the previous mission, they were paying workers when an IED exploded nearby. On another water project, the team just missed an ambush.

Afghan villagers also face Taliban reprisals for working with the Americans. But in spite of the Taliban resistance and the cultural change the project represents, villagers say the dams connect them to the Afghan government—and the Indiana Agribusiness Development Team. But a Shobo Khel villege elder is reassuring.

“If we are seeing the bad people, we are to be letting know the Afghan government, absolutely,” he said through an interpreter. “He say, ‘I am really appreciating from the ADT they starting this kind of project in my area.’”

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