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.”
Navigating entrenched Afghan bureaucracy was also a struggle for the team. Two men they quickly learned to keep happy: the DAIL (Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock) at the provincial level, and the MAIL (Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock), Afghanistan’s top agricultural official.
“We had to run everything through these guys. If you tried to do something without going through the right channels, you’d shoot yourself in the foot. They’d sandbag you and corruption is rampant. It’s incredibly corrupt over there. It took us a while to find people we could work with.”
Still, the team’s work progressed.
“Towards the summer, we were hitting the agricultural seminars heavy. And if a farmer stayed through the whole seminar, we’d give them X amount of vaccinations, tools, all kinds of things they’d never have been able to afford on their own.”
It was a bit of dilemma deciding what sort of aid to provide the Afghans. “Some of the humanitarian organizations would give a tractor or generators and other types of modern equipment,” says Taylor. “That wasn’t a good idea. If you gave them something like a tractor, it would break down and they have no part stores to fix it and had no education of how to even start. It also would cause problems by creating a welfare type dependency – ‘why buy it or build it, when the Americans will give it to us.’ It also showed favoritism and made locals targets for the Taliban when we left.”
The team decided to provide locals with tools. Doing so meant “we could educate them on the proper and best uses of the tools, like back pack sprayers and vet supplies,” says Taylor.
Wheat was a large focus of Hafer’s. “The seasons in Afghanistan are like ours – they also plant wheat in the fall. In that respect, we didn’t have to do any work-arounds. Of course, there were other crops we weren’t as familiar with like pomegranates and almonds.”
It became readily apparent that the Afghan’s crop genetics were poor.
“They don’t know to keep the best seed to replant and eat the poorer seed. They did the complete opposite. They’d eat the best wheat and plant the garbage. This had been in practice for so long that the genetics were very bad.
“We went searching for a new wheat variety that would fit their needs. They have a bad rust problem and in order to deal with it, we had a variety flown in and established a wheat distribution program. If we couldn’t truck the variety to villages, we’d put it in helicopters and fly it to them.”
At the same time, the team educated the villagers on the importance of proper wheat farming. “They typically planted wheat and barley together and wondered why the two weren’t performing. Well, one crop was competing with the other. They accepted that sort of advice.”
But some things the Afghans wouldn’t change. An example, says Hafer, was simply to trellis grapes.
“They wouldn’t trellis, period. Grapes there are grown on long earth mounds, draped over them.
“We talked a farmer into allowing us to take a small spot of his grapes. We cut the mound out from under them and put them on a trellis. By the end of the season, those grapes looked three times better than the rest.”
It didn’t matter.
“They told us ‘we put in so much work on the mounds, we’re going to keep doing it that way.’ Those are the situations where you just shrug and move on.”
Meanwhile, the Afghan’s irrigation methods were “very, very efficient” – a good thing after a decade-long drought.
“They make use of a system that is thousands of years old that incorporates ‘karezes.’ That’s a series of vertical shafts in a row that usually start next to a mountain or on a mountainside. Believe or not, one guy goes into those shafts and they dig a horizontal shaft beneath the vertical shafts all the way to end. Water then collects in those shafts – usually associated with a spring.”
Cisterns are also built up. In a village there is usually a central irrigation system. From that, there will be five or six canals connected. All day long, men sit at the central hub timing the water flow.
“Every family receives a certain amount of water for their orchard or whatever through one of the canals. When their time of running water is over, they pack the canal with mud and break open the barrier to another canal so that family can get their share.
“It’s amazing. I’d almost swear they can make water run uphill. Water was so precious and they wasted none.”