The fifth of occasional postings
Guest Post by Afghanistan Ag Man
In the months since I last posted on Nukes of Hazard there have been many country-wide and provincial-level changes in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of command over a Rolling Stone article, which prompted Embassy staffers to rather humorously compare and contrast the affair with that of the movie Almost Famous. President Hamid Karzai attempted to ban private security companies and, thus, change the face of development in Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has moved into once Taliban-controlled territories. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has followed suit; and so I have transitioned from an eastern province to an even more kinetic—or combat active—district in Kandahar.
Last November, I saw the last of the 173rd Airborne paratroopers that I lived with for the past year leave on twin Chinook helicopters and head back to their bases in Italy and Germany. With the fighting season over in most of the country and winter in full force, we are fine-tuning our goals and objectives for the new year (or the last half of the Islamic calendar year). Yet at the same time US civilians and Afghan government officials plan for what is to come, we are also taking stock of the previous year. While there is much to be done, we have much to be proud of.
From my perch at the provincial level, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s (GIRoA) Directorate of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (DAIL) has reignited a lackluster extension service that now effectively takes agricultural education to remote corners of the province, created farmers associations that revived export of Afghan products, increased services to once isolated parts of the province, and weaned itself away from primary dependency on foreign checkbooks and onto the Afghan government for support…
The monthly DAIL training sessions, for instance, bring 60 farmers to the capital from every district in the country, thus ensuring a DAIL presence in Taliban-controlled districts without risking the lives of US or Afghan civilians or troops. These training sessions have focused on various topics, including: integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, irrigation techniques, pruning, thinning, livestock health, and extension service efficiency. USDA created the trainings and provided funding for tools and techniques that are pertinent to the subject matter. Participants in these workshops then return to their own villages to share what they have learned. In my province of roughly half a million residents, for example, it is estimated that these trainings impact directly or indirectly impact roughly 200,000 farmers and their families each month.
In keeping with USDA’s mission of capacity building (aka “training the trainers”), these monthly sessions exemplify what capacity building can accomplish when properly executed. After we conducted the first set of trainings, the DAIL leadership independently organized a calendar with agricultural topics that coincided with the appropriate seasons (ie. pruning in late fall, pollination in early spring, etc). Even the funding for these workshops—which originally came from military Commanders Emergency Response Funds (CERP)—is now administered and regulated by the Afghan Provincial Development Council (PDC). Outside funding from Non-Governmental Organizations, USAID, and some bulk CERP funds still play a role, but decisions are filtered through the appropriate GIRoA officials for approval.
There are other examples of capacity building success. USDA established a farmers association (or cooperative) in a key terrain district within my province. The cooperative assists these farmers in post-harvest handling, packaging, processing, and methods of export. It now numbers 800 farmers. Equipping leaders with passports to the United Arab Emirates and India, USDA, DAIL, and implementing partners have been able to empower growers to export their fruit products at higher prices abroad, thus increasing disposable income at home and increasing the overall quality of life and health of Afghan farmers.
The cooperative is now taking the lead in establishing an even larger association in a neighboring district. In the past, these districts would have viewed one another as agribusiness competitors; however, these tribally mixed associations of Hazaras, Tajiks, and Pashtuns now see the financial benefits of cooperation and realize that a province-wide association is the key to raising profits long-term.
USDA has even helped the DAIL leadership physically access districts (via military convoy or air assets) that were—until last year—unreachable due to insecurity or geographic location. In one district DAIL leaders hosted the largest shura (or gathering) of farmers that the entire province had ever witnessed (with over 250 farmers). Just six months earlier, the Taliban sent a night letter threatening to kidnap and murder of any person caught working with USDA or DAIL, which resulted in USDA’s initial failed shura attempt in the district.
USDA, with the immense help of military and civilian partners, has fostered an extremely close relationship with the Afghan agriculture officials. These invaluable working relationships have built the foundation for a strong and responsive government directorate, and this can be seen in the growing confidence that Afghan citizens have toward their infant government.
For instance, when the kuchi (or nomadic herdsmen) (in my province?) experienced an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), they turned to the DAIL to assist them with vaccinations. When the codling moth and black rot were decimating apple yields, orchard owners turned to the DAIL to train them in cultural practices and sustainable solutions. When the floods destroyed orchards and eradicated the wheat harvest, the landowners turned to the DAIL for assistance in replanting techniques.
Just a year ago, the coalition forces were the sole source of funding and assistance for just about everything, whether for a mosque refurbishment or a generator or a well. Currently, such requests are now funded through the Afghan-led PDC and approved by the appropriate GIRoA line directors.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and implementing partners have a significant role to play as they complement government efforts. However, as it stands today, my province has realized that legitimate government bodies (i.e. DAIL, PDC, etc) that exist today will NOT be phased out anytime soon. Government ministries and directorates are serving their constituents, with tangible results that are strengthening their role in Afghan society.
As I look back on my time, I can see a lot of success mixed in with the occasional setback. This is a war, afterall, and things will not be perfect. We have lost many good men and women—both international and Afghan, military and civilian; government centers have been attacked; improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have detonated at increasing rates. These setbacks are right to be highlighted, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the real and measurable progress that has been made.
The Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Police (ANP), the Afghan Police Protection Program (AP3), the Afghan GIRoA officials, and the Afghan civilians that are working with the government all have made great strides this past year under the new counterinsurgency strategy. And the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and non-Afghan civilians imbedded with them have a lot to be proud of as well.
I leave this province in the hands of the 10th Mountain Division, the Nevada Agribusiness Development Team, and a new USDA Advisor. More importantly, however, I leave this province with a functioning, competent DAIL that is on the path toward reaching its many lofty goals—goals that were once deemed too unrealistic to ever be achieved.
In light of this large amount of progress, I am compelled to remain in Afghanistan for another year and to take over the agricultural efforts in a critical district in Kandahar. With half of my future district controlled by Taliban and the district governor recently assassinated, the challenges will be great and the promise of succeeding will be small. However, the successes I saw this past year will sustain me when I face the heat (literally and figuratively) of my new post and I look forward to what lies ahead.