What is in this article?:
- Unable to quash the Taliban with bullets alone, U.S. military brass figured they’d try a different approach, one that would bolster the agricultural roots of the desperately poor in southern Afghanistan.
- "You could tell they (Taliban) wanted to do us in, and would have if they could get around all our guns. They knew we’d smoke their heads.”
Optimism mixed with difficulty
Optimism was high but difficulties abounded.
“It was tough because the education system there is not comparable to the West,” says Hafer. “A college degree earned there is probably equivalent to a ninth-grade or high-school education here. That’s a great divide to overcome.
“Things were tough for multiple reasons. One, the security where we were at was lacking. If we weren’t in the most dangerous place in the country, it was second-most. That meant getting Afghan ‘Extension agents’ to work with us was a feat in itself, never mind matching up educational requirements we knew were needed.”
Along with one of the Air Force personnel, Hafer and Taylor decided that in addition to the demonstration farms they’d put together a series of agricultural seminars.
“We developed a plan to go to as many of the 13 districts that we could to get the Afghan government officials out there,” says Taylor. “We came up with the idea from the medical seminars that the Special Forces guys did to teach the locals. We took the idea and made it fit for agriculture … and it lasted the rest of the tour. We would go and do a recon of the area and speak to the locals in a town hall-type setting, called a ‘Shurra,’ about three weeks before we would have the seminars.”
Suicide bomb threats weren’t uncommon and, Taylor says, more than once “some of the locals we were working with got kidnapped. It was bad for the Taliban to have the Afghan government helping the locals and we met resistance at many of the events -- both attacks on us and the Afghans.”
At one point, team members traveled to the university in Kabul and spoke with professors and Extension agents. “We said ‘we’ll send Chinook helicopters to pick you up and we’ll fly you wherever we need to go in the province,’” says Hafer.
Whenever possible, the idea was to put an Afghan face on the team’s efforts, allow the Afghans any glory. Every district in the province has a center where elders and tribal chiefs hold court. Those are where the team put on two- and three-day seminars and pushed the leaders to the front.
Presentations were provided on all sorts of crops. “Maybe we’d have an expert on pomegranates, which is a major crop there. If a farmer came in and was having trouble, hopefully the lecture would help him. Then, they’d sidebar after the lecture and get advice about their specific situation.”
Hafer found the lack of roads and isolation of Afghan village life hard to comprehend. The agricultural seminars were a simple way to bring villages together. “Honestly, some of these folks could see another village in the distance. But for their entire lives they’d not travel over and meet them -- live and die and never even know who their neighbors are.
“Things are very primitive. These villages are out in the middle of nowhere. One village we walked into, the people thought we were Russians.”