Thursday, March 24, 2011

Change is in the Air

Winter wheat in the Khowst bowl is flourishing as the recent March warmup interacts with January and February rains 

Perhaps it's the fact that I've managed to escape the past three Indiana winters, or better yet- the reality that the Khowst Province sits at an elevation of 6,000ft. Regardless, I can't say that I've ever seen such a rapid transition in temperatures.

Throughout the month of March, the mercury has been on the rise here around FOB Salerno. While I would hardly classify the conditions we experienced from December-early March as "winterlike", the rate at which we've seen temperatures increase has been quite dramatic. In the course of just several days, three at most, perspiration levels skyrocketed as the mid-to-low 50 degree temperatures we've all grown accustomed to suddenly shot up into the mid-80's.

This increase in temperature, coupled with scattered rain showers over the past month and half, has resulted in a drastic change of the landscape here in Khowst. A recent mission to a location utilized as a provincial observation center provided a great vantage point of this greening.

Weather is not the only thing changing around here, it seems change is in the air. In my short 27 years on this earth, I struggle to recall a moment in history when so much was going on across the globe. From the horrid chain of events in Japan, unrest across the string of Arab nations, and even the chaos ensuing in Statehouses across the midwest; Fox News and CNN have had plenty to cover in the past month or so. 

Soldiers from the Afghan National Army continue to accompany our convoys
on nearly every mission, hopefully taking home some valuable lessons learned.

A quick scan of the news coming out of Afghanistan is likely to bring up two key topics, the first of these being "civilian casualties" and the second "transition". While the first is a tragic and unfortunately all too common side effect of war, the second inspires that there might be light at the end of this tunnel that United States servicemembers have been traveling for the better part of a decade.

Commanders and public affairs professionals throughout the Afghan theatre have recently been instructed on the principles and conditions guiding a future transition. The key takeaway from these multi-paged documents is that any transition will be "conditions based" rather than implementation based on any timelines. However, many experts or even critics predict a dramatic reduction in troop levels well in advance of the 2012 election.

What does the future of Afghanistan look like? Well, that's a several billion dollar question... From a security standpoint, Afghan National Security Forces or ANSF (think a combination of US law enforcement and military components) would be capable of defending their own country. Currently, at least one ANSF vehicle accompanies every US and NATO convoy that leaves an installation. While US forces are conducting their standard operations here, a mentorship opportunity is simultaneously taking place.

Specialist Cadel Crowl and I surveying the landscape from atop the provincial observation point, the Khowst OCCP. Cadel is originally from Angola, Indiana and is currently studying Agricultural Education at Purdue University. Ironically enough, he and I also found that we have some distant relatives back in NE Indiana.
Another term that is repeatedly used in most transition conversations is "governance". Perhaps this is a term we take for granted back in the States; unfortunately most people in Afghanistan have never had the luxury of seeing this word in action. Ideally, as a transition occurs, district and provincial governments across Afghanistan will have the wherewithal to stand upon their own two feet. A transition is not an abrupt withdrawal, but rather a meticulous "thinning-out".

For Agribusiness Development Teams, the future holds many possibilities. Depending on who you ask, the composition of teams such as Indiana's 3-19th could look dramatically different in coming years. The group slated to replace us later this summer will most likely be the last of a Dept of Defense lead effort. Land grant universities such as Purdue will likely take the lead on many of these development minded teams. Other US government agencies such as the United States Dept. of Agriculture as well as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will also continue to play a major role, especially in their continued mentorship responsibilities of Afghan agricultural officials such as the Minister of Agriculture.

Realistically speaking, the United States will have a significant presence in Afghanistan for decades to come. I'm careful to speak of a nation-state in terms of finances, but what type of return on investment would Americans receive if a transition didn't include some type of dividend for them after a decade of investing?

Major installations such as Bagram and Kandahar are strategic strongholds in this part of the world and will continue to be critical locations in future anti-terrorism efforts, long after Operation Enduring Freedom. In the next decade, these bases will soon be spoken of in the likes of countless other United States military installations throughout the world. I doubt soldiers fighting in WWII ever imagined that US servicemembers would still be serving today in places such as Germany and Japan, 70 years after the fact.

The one major player, globally speaking, that is yet to show their hand is China. In June of last year, Pentagon officials announced the discovery of nearly $1 trillion dollars worth of mineral deposits across the country of Afghanistan. As China's growing middle class continues to demand more and more natural resources, I wouldn't be surprised in the least bit to see an increased Chinese presence in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. After all, they do share a sliver of a border.

As we've seen across the globe, the one constant in a world of turmoil is change. Only time will tell what the future of Afghanistan will look like after what we all hope is a peaceful transition. Until then, those of us on the 3-19th ADT will continue to do the work we were called upon to complete.

Members of the 3-19th ADT gather to celebrate the birth of a daughter for one of our interpreters. Ajmal (on the tractor seat) is a 23 yr old Khowst native who is currently waiting on his Special Immigrant Visa, this was he and his wife's first child.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Teach A Man to Fish

Local children rush to collect treats from members of the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team
during a recent visit to Shaikh Zayed University.

“If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people”
– Chinese Proverbs

Now that we on the 3-19th ADT are through with preparing our friends here in the Khowst Province of Afghanistan for the next decade, it’s time we shift our focus a bit to the long term vision. Of course I wouldn’t say that all the major issues of the next decade have been addressed, but it is safe to say that we as a team are shifting our strategy to more of an education-based approach. As we've been providing villagers with traditional products such as chickens and trees, the time has now come to promote other opportunities in agriculture in an effort to transition from simple subsistence farming.
Those who have studied vocations or human psychology can attest that individuals have a natural tendency to gravitate towards their strengths. Apparently this theory proves relevant for members of the 3-19th ADT as well. With two high school administrators and several other school teachers spread out amongst the team, it should come as no surprise that our instinctive areas of focus would center around education.

This past summer, while touring the farm of former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Jim Moseley, a vision came into the mind of one of our team members. During Moseley’s time at USDA, and later as Don Rumsfeld’s point man on Afghan agriculture, he noticed a serious void in the lack of youth development programs currently available to the children of Afghanistan. Throughout his years in Washington, Moseley made a remarkable 13 trips to Afghanistan, each time noticing this total lack of any type of development programs for the leaders of tomorrow- a critical component of any campaign to break a corruption cycle.

The youth of Afghanistan are extremely inquisitive. In this photo a young
girl looks onto the grounds of Shaikh Zayed University as the agricultural
seminar Future Farmers of Afghanistan is underway.

Within days of our visit to the Moseley Farm, Major Jeremy Gulley (3-19th ADT Education Officer) had already put his thoughts on paper. His vision, Future Farmers of Afghanistan, would require much coordination and buy-in from our partners within the Khowst Provinicial Government. But after all, doesn't anything worthwhile require a bit of blood, sweat, and tears?
Fortunately for Gulley, our predecessors here the 2-19th ADT, had a great working relationship already in place with Shaikh Zayed University by the time we set foot on ground. The main issue at hand would now be coordination among the Director of Education and the Director of Agriculture, both "line director" positions within the Khowst Provincial Government.
After several meetings with each of these individuals, with both parties showing extreme enthusiasm, Future Farmers of Afghanistan was slowly becoming more of a reality. By the time the coordination and "concurrence" phases were complete, signatures from over a dozen officials were required to start the process moving forward. 
During this same period, FFA advisors from high schools across the state of Indiana began sending agricultural lesson plans over to Afghanistan for review by the 3-19th ADT education team. After review and some slight tweaks, including the obvious necessity of translation, these plans were compiled and handed over to the Dean of Agriculture at Shaikh Zayed University.
Shaikh Zayed University's Faculty of Agriculture hosted a
recent training seminar titled Future Farmers of Afghanistan
Shaikh Zayed University was a natural center for this project, just as a college campus functions back in the States, SZU radiates an atmosphere that encourages critical thinking. A demonstration farm existed on the campus of SZU, but was in need of some minor repairs before any official training could be held within the confines. This would be Phase I of the project, the touch-up repairs around the farm of SZU.
Phase II is really the foundation of the entire project, during this phase (which just finished on Monday) 120 teachers from six different high schools come to the University for a two-day intensive training seminar. In addition to the high school educators, Agricultural Extension Agents from each of the province's 13 districts attend the training as well. During their time on campus, these teachers and extension agents were instructed on a variety of different agricultural topics ranging from composting to solar dehydration.
While the teachers and agents were away at the university, the third phase was taking place at six pilot high schools throughout the districts. Six agricultural kits consisting of a full-size greenhouse, composting pit, solar dehydrator, and other classroom materials have been delivered to these schools. All the materials (locally contracted) have been placed at the schools and the projects are currently under construction.

The Tani District Ag Extension Agent conducts a forestry
lesson for the villagers of his district.

Distribution of the materials is a good start, but worthless without some type of check on learning associated with the products. Coalition Forces have been donating goods to the local populace here for the better part of the last decade, with little follow-up after the fact.

Phase IV of the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project calls on Shaikh Zayed instructors for a mentorship role within the local high schools. For four hours per week, SZU professors will work with the recently instructed high school educators as they deliver training to their students.

The end-state of this pilot program will ideally give students a chance to act on the entrepreneurial spirit we hope these agribusiness lessons will inspire. Think of a humid August day, nothing says summer vacation like a lemon shake-up at the local county 4-H fair. With an end of program agricultural showcase, students will have an opportunity to market their fresh fruits and vegetables in an effort to fund future programs.

Future Farmers of Afghanistan is funded through a mechanism we call the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP). To best describe CERP, I’ll borrow text from our guidance on targeting areas of instability as laid out in the official manual-
Goal: Support Sustainable Socio-Economic Development
Consistent with the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), ISAF and its international partners address the drivers of instability in key population areas by supporting Afghan efforts to provide equitable access to basic services. ISAF uses available funds such as the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) to support civilian socio-economic programs that help develop stable, legitimate, and accountable governance and stimulate Afghan private sector development.
Future Farmers of Afghanistan is a textbook example of how funds can be distributed in a responsible fashion, to a worthy cause. While spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to attract the attention of so many across the nation, programs like this hands-on, project based training seminar will continue to rise to the top of funding priorities throughout the Afghan theater.

High school educators in the recent Future Farmers of Afghanistan seminar receive
instruction on a barrel composter; part of an agricultural education kit that
will soon be installed in their schools.

As deadlines for troop withdrawals loom in the forefront of many minds, non-combat operations such as ADT's will continue to provide a unique capability to commanders across the country. While a push for more civilians and less "boots on the ground" is a popular debate, a delicate balance of the two will prove to be of critical importance for future military campaigns in the Afghan theater

With a relatively low cost ratio for the number of people served, education-based projects will undoubtedly prove their value; most likely with compound interest.  Let’s just hope that the atmosphere here in decades to come will allow an educated people to market their trees and perhaps even sow a bit of rice for those outside of their immediate families…

All Smiles...
A young farmer from the Tani District departs the district center after receiving a forestry block of instruction.