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Tip of the spear

What do farming and a
victory in Afghanistan have to do with one another? “A whole lot,” says Captain
Peter Shinn with the Iowa National Guard’s 734th Agri-Business Development Team
(ADT).

ADT is a self-contained
volunteer unit made up of five to six dozen Army National Guard and Air
National Guard members with backgrounds and expertise in various sectors of the
agribusiness field. Its mission is to provide training and advice to Afghan
universities, provincial ministries, and local farmers to increase stability
and to improve opportunities for Afghanistan’s reemerging agribusiness sector.
The overall goal is to help protect the population by increasing food security.
ADT represents a direct connection between the concepts of national security
and food security.

“An estimated 85% of
Afghanis are dependent on agriculture and related agribusinesses for their
livelihoods,” says Shinn. “What percentage of that total represents actual
Afghan farmers varies widely by region. In Kunar Province, where the 734th ADT
is stationed, we know the percentage of people who actually depend on farming
or livestock production for subsistence is overwhelming.”

But in many cases, Afghan
agriculture is more than a century behind U.S. agriculture. U.S. agriculture is
large scale, highly mechanized, and among the most technically advanced, if not
the most technically advanced, in the world. Afghan agriculture, by comparison,
is extremely small scale, nearly completely unmechanized, and has yet to
benefit from virtually any of the technical advances made in the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries.

“Most of the techniques and
procedures the team aims to share with Afghan farmers and livestock growers are
not equipment dependent,” says Shinn. “For example, soil testing, crop-nutrient
management, and recognizing plant diseases are all basic agronomic skills that
can help most Afghan farmers improve their productivity quickly, without
providing them with complex or costly gear. The same is true of improving their
basic irrigation infrastructure or building demonstration farms.”

Because Afghanistan is
overwhelmingly rural and dependent on agriculture, a disappointing yield means
hunger for farmers and their families, which are typically large. Hunger breeds
desperation and joining an insurgent group becomes more appealing in exchange
for assurance their families will have food.

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Changing The System

In countries like
Afghanistan where food is scarce, national security and food security are
closely tied to one another. It’s a cycle ADT members are hoping to break.

“During every farm bill
debate, lawmakers emphasize the link between national and food security,” says
Shinn.

Within U.S. borders, we’re
experiencing the opposite problem. “In this country, our ag producers are so
efficient, almost no one really worries about whether or not they’ll get enough
to eat. We’ve got so much to eat, that many of us eat more than is good for
us,” Shinn says. “It’s readily available because there’s a prudent government
safety net in place to offset the unpredictable nature of agriculture
production.”

But in Afghanistan, food
security is tenuous. The Afghan agricultural safety net is minimal at best.
Agricultural infrastructure and expertise, after 30 years of war, has been
decimated. This is where ADT is making a difference.

“They bring the know-how to
advise Afghan ag officials on rebuilding or, in many cases, simply building,
systems and institutions that can deliver ag-related services to the Afghan
people. As systems are implemented, ADT works directly with Afghan ag producers
to deliver immediate, tangible improvements in their production,” says Shinn.

Who makes all this possible?

“It’s the farmers, ranchers,
veterinarians, soil scientists, agronomists, hydrologists, foresters, and ag
marketers who represent the broad set of civilian skills that ADT brings to the
fight,” he says.

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There is tremendous ag
production capacity in Kunar, along with some immediate opportunities to help
farmers improve yields.

“For example, a very nice
looking corn crop is coming in on a half acre or so right outside the base. The
corn is tasseling and looks to be around 6 to 7 feet tall,” says Shinn. “The
farmer who seeded the field used a broadcast approach, so there’s not a corn
row to be seen. One of our efforts will likely involve demonstrating the
production benefits that come from planting corn in rows.”

His most important
observation thus far is that every single Afghani he has spoken to doesn’t want
the U.S. to leave, He has yet to meet one who doesn’t enthusiastically endorse
ADT’s work.

“Shortly after we arrived in
Kunar, the provincial governor, Fazlullah Wahidi, invited us to join him and
local mullahs (religious leaders) in an iftar, which is the dinner meal after
the day’s fast during Ramadan,” Shinn says. “Some of the religious leaders also
run local madrassas, or fundamental Islamic religious schools. Some media
reports have implicated madrassas as training grounds for Islamic extremists
and some madrassa students attended the dinner.”

Afterward, Shinn interviewed
one of those students, Abdullah. He asked him what he thought of the Iowa ADT
mission, and Abdullah’s answer surprised Shinn. The young man said he and
everyone in his family were farmers and he was glad to see the U.S. in the area
doing an agricultural mission – even if it took several years.

“With the right approach,
the U.S. can and will achieve its objectives in Afghanistan,” says Shinn.
“Young men like Abdullah illustrate why the National Guard’s ADT concept is a
key component of America’s counterinsurgency strategy and why U.S. farmers are
at the tip of the spear in Afghanistan.” 

Learn More

734th Agri-Business Development
Team

www.facebook.com/IowaADT

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