Arkansas Soldiers Continue Their Work With Afghan Farmers

Sep 9, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden back in May and the continued dismantling of several jihadist networks are widely considered victories, but military officials warn that the road to rebuilding Afghan communities is rocky and the path to a peaceful exit is still uncertain.

Various community development initiatives led by coalition forces, as well as a host of training programs, are key components of counter-insurgency efforts for Operation Enduring Freedom. Malcolm Glover with KUAR in Little Rock reports on the changing role of the National Guard in Afghanistan.

Soldiers with the Arkansas National Guard continue to play an integral part in meeting the objectives of the ever-changing war in Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Keith Moore was one of about 60 soldiers and airmen who served on the Arkansas National Guard’s first Agricultural Development Team. The crew toiled in the fields of Afghanistan for over 10 months to help villagers improve local farming practices, preserve natural resources, and develop industries.

Lt. Col. Keith Moore waters a section of land the Ag Team has sewn with winter wheat. The team worked on a farm in Shahr-e-Safa, Afghanistan in conjunction with the Zabul Province Agriculture Department to teach new farming techniques and test crop products for resiliency to pests and weather conditions.

“We trained average farmers in Afghanistan on certain things, like drip irrigation techniques versus the way they irrigate most of their land, which is flood irrigation,” said Moore. “We would teach them a lot of improved techniques that they could utilize the things that they already do and already grow, but do it more efficiently.”

Moore says even though the team spent most of its time bringing agriculture education, training, and farm development programs into villages throughout eight districts in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, the occasional distant sounds of explosions and missiles were a constant reminder of the clear and present danger in a war zone.

“About 90 percent of the things we did were off the protected area and not on a base, but out there among the average Afghans at village level,” Moore said. “Every time we went out on a mission you had to wear all the body armor and we had a compliment of 12 to 15 security people manning the trucks and heavy equipment and watching our backs.”

The whole idea of soldiers packing firepower while lending a helping hand to villagers is of great concern to some humanitarian groups. Officials at various nongovernmental organizations have called the phenomena the “militarization of aid.” They say involving civilians in projects led by soldiers, who are part of the war conflict, can make both the projects and the locals involved a target for retaliation.

Sgt. David Hafer, an agronomy specialist with the Ag Team, looks over a test crop of spinach in the team’s greenhouse on the farm in Shahr-e-Safa, Afghanistan.

“Coming into a village in a tank with a full convoy it’s neither very effective and it might not be very safe for communities to be associated with these different groups,” said Lynn Yoshikawa.

Yoshikawa is a humanitarian policy and advocacy specialist who has worked with Oxfam International and Refugees International. Yoshikawa lived in Afghanistan for about 15 months in 2010 and early 2011 reviewing security conditions and education reforms. She says communities shouldn’t be forced to choose sides in order to get help.

“Really there needs to be a real political solution to the situation where communities, especially those suffering from conflict, should be able to get aid from impartial civilian organizations,” Yoshikawa said. “These communities shouldn’t have to be taking aid from a group that puts them on one side or the other and endangers their lives.”

Yoshikawa says villagers in parts of Afghanistan have been using certain agriculture techniques for hundreds of years, so one year of training in new farming techniques by members of U.S. military isn’t long enough. She says true program effectiveness can only be gauged after five to ten years. Lt. Col. Moore says he understands the criticisms of the Ag Development Team’s work by some in the NGO community, but he stands by some promising preliminary results.

Lt. Col. Keith Moore, a member of the Arkansas National Guard’s first Agricultural Development Team.
Credit Malcolm Glover

“We built a rapport with the people whether through teaching, working, and mentoring in all the different facets of agriculture, like planting, irrigation, fertilization, soils analysis, and marketing,” said Moore. “One of the last things we did before we left was setting up an orientation training program for how to establish farmers’ cooperatives.”

Currently the Arkansas National Guard is fielding a second Ag Development Team in Afghanistan. The soldiers with that group are continuing the training and development work of the first team. They’re expected back home by early December.