Several years ago, unable to quash the Taliban with bullets alone, military brass figured they’d try a different approach, one that would bolster the agrarian roots of the desperately poor in southern Afghanistan.

That’s how, in 2010, the Agriculture Development Team One – a joint Air Force/National Guard counter insurgency effort – came to be surrounded by the chaotic ruckus kicked up by thousands and thousands of sheep and goats. Word had spread like wildfire through the mountainous desolation: the Americans would vaccinate and treat herds. The hand-to-mouth populace latched onto the golden opportunity and the team worked for days on the animals.

In the year-plus the team spent in Afghanistan’s dangerous Zabul Province it was a scene that would repeat itself many times.

The team, largely composed of Mid-South men, arrived in Afghanistan in February of 2010. A troop surge was ongoing and it was early March before they reached their base, which proved to be nothing except a bare patch of ground a bit over 7,000 feet in elevation. Tents were pitched, generators brought in, everything built from scratch.

Some 50 miles from the notorious Pakistan border, the base was in a historical area. About a mile away sat a castle built for Alexander the Great – certainly nice, but small consolation weighed against the near-constant threat of violence.

The team

David Paul Hafer is a young east Arkansan raised in a farming family south of Helena. He was even younger when, after earning a degree in agricultural business and farming for a few years, the events of 9/11 spurred him to join the National Guard. He rented the farmland out and was sent to Iraq in 2008. When he returned home, Hafer joined the agriculture team bound for Afghanistan in 2010.

Also on the team was Addison Taylor, who’d been raised on an Arkansas rice farm in Jefferson County’s Altheimer. Taylor was managing the family farm when, he says, “We were notified about the deployment at the end of October and would start training on our mission in November for departure in January. We had short notice to get our affairs in order.” 

The team consisted of “guys who came from all sorts of agricultural backgrounds: agronomy, animal science, poultry, whatever,” says Hafer. Prior to leaving, “we went through an intense, week-long training program with the University of Arkansas Extension Service. It was saturation sessions, getting everyone up to speed on whatever field they’d be covering once we were in-country.”

Once there, Hafer and colleagues spoke with “Special Operation guys. ‘Here’s who we are, here’s what we’re doing.’ They were very happy to see us because they didn’t have enough to offer the (locals). They needed to build up some goodwill. They’d walk into a village and the residents would say ‘okay, now what?’

“Once our team hit the ground, though, they were able to tell the villagers ‘we’re the Special Forces. Plus, we have these guys who are going to help you with your farming. If you have any problems, visit with them and they’ll help you fix it.’”

Strategic planning and assessments of terrain and local populations followed. “None of it was anything like we’d previously planned or trained for,” says Taylor. Locals were illiterate and “none of the people knew what was even on the other side of the river from them. At the same time, we were being pulled in many directions by all of the units in the battle space, from U.S. Special Operation guys to the Romanian Army.”

Hafer found unexpected benefits from having sweated with the Extension Service during summers while attending the University of Arkansas. Asked to put together projects to help educate Afghan farmers, he drew on that work.

“I was asked to build a couple of model farms while in Afghanistan. These were demonstration farms – one in the south part of the province we were in, one in the north.

“I tried to pull everything the university does – sort of cobbling together all the verification projects and the like – and put it on one little farm to show the Afghans. We had everything from grapes to wheat to chickens.”

Then, the team planned to put together an education center on the demonstration farms, a place where Afghan farmers could receive up-to-date farming advice. “We envisioned it as kind of what we do with Extension agents in the States.”