The first of occasional postings
Guest Post by Afghanistan Ag Man
On December 1 of last year, President Barack Obama spoke to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on the future of American military operations in Afghanistan. In the course of outlining the resources that would be required to implement a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy, the President stated:
We will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security…we will also focus our assistance in areas — such as agriculture — that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.
It is due to these lines in the speech that I am here in Afghanistan today. As an agricultural advisor from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), I have been assigned to a province in the mountains of the Hindu Kush in Eastern Afghanistan.
Ultimately, I hope to use these blog posts as an outlet to tell the stories of local Afghans and the troops that I live with, as well as my own story as an average American farmer that is now part of a civilian-military (re)development strategy in Afghanistan.
My identity and location will remain anonymous to protect not only myself, but also the Americans and Afghans that I am working with. I will, however, try wholeheartedly to report as completely and factually as possible…
For the next year, I will be embedded with the men and women of the US military as they go on their patrols and conduct missions in my provincial area of responsibility. I am, however, just one of the several hundred U.S. Government employees (primarily from the Department of State, US Agency for International Development, and USDA) sent here to Afghanistan to serve in various capacities, including as Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and District Support Team (DST) members; Afghan minister/ministry mentors; technical experts in the fields of governance, rule of law, agriculture, and irrigation; and civilian counterparts and advisors to our military leaders at the brigade, battalion, and platoon levels.
To better access the local population, I have been placed on an outpost in a remote area of the province and will be travelling from district to district to better assess the agricultural situation of each village. Life out here is pretty basic, but the guys I live alongside are honestly the best “co-workers” I could ask for. My integration into my unit has been surprisingly quick. I neither expected nor have been granted special treatment. I celebrated Christmas by taking inventory of ammunition in a mortar pit; carried equipment to the tops of mountains to survey a valley (and I assure you, these are not hills, but mountains!); “conquered” a burned-out Soviet tank (an explanation will come in a following post); and waded through a river on a New Year’s Eve night mission.
In addition to my role as a member of a military unit, the Obama administration’s new strategy tasked me with the job of “reinforcing positive [Afghan] action” throughout the populace of my designated province. To this end, it will be necessary to go “outside the wire” each day to conduct missions. Such missions include shuras (i.e. consultations) with village representatives and elders, discussions with local farmers on crop yields and technical improvements, and project site assessments to gauge the progress of agricultural and irrigation improvements.
Each day’s mission usually starts out with encouraging words from our fearless lieutenant that it is only “a short walk–a few clicks (i.e. kilometers) at the most.” As I have found out, our missions continually evolve and these “few clicks” could include anything from scaling a mountain, to traversing fields after dark because a key leader engagement (KLE) (i.e. a meeting with key leaders or representatives of a village that speak on behalf of that community) was delayed, to spending long hours keeping watch over old Soviet minefields until a team arrives to deal with them.
A willingness to be flexible is, therefore, key to surviving a tour in Afghanistan. I live in an environment that has no weekends and that runs on military time, which I am still trying to get used to. A typical workday starts at about 0600 and does not end until 0000 (i.e. midnight). My normal morning routine of reading the New York Times has been replaced by reading mission briefs and security reports. As I fall asleep at night, I think about the possibility of an apiculture (i.e. beekeeping) training session for local farmers or the consequences of a check dam series (i.e. a series of small, somewhat temporary dams that slow down rivers and create pools of water) on a stretch of a particular river.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I have never had an occupation that has brought so much satisfaction and exhaustion so early on. I look forward to getting up each day, working alongside American soldiers and Afghan interpreters, and doing my part to help stabilize the country so that we can ultimately leave. From my vantage point, the military has embraced the necessity of a civilian effort to complement their military efforts. For example, on occasions when I am not out on patrol with my base unit, I often return to dinner conversations with them that contain enthusiastic reports of their meetings with farmers that need to meet me or of potential agricultural projects to assess. I am often referred to the villagers as “an agriculture guy that is really smart and can help you with your crops” – a humbling moniker that I hope to live up to.