Army Colonel Brian Copes and the Indiana Army National Guard headed off to war with a pitchfork, not a rifle. As commander of the 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team in Afghanistan in 2009, Copes’ team deployed to Khost province, abutting Pakistan in far eastern Afghanistan. Their mission: to work with local farmers, U.S. civilians and international groups to help bring Afghan farming into the 20th, if not quite the 21st, Century.
Copes says his biggest problem wasn’t the Afghan farmers, but the U.S. civilians his team worked with. “Some of them just had a certain elitist bias, really looked down their noses at people in uniform as a bunch of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals,” he recalls. In this January interview recently posted on Fort Leavenworth’s Combat Studies Institute’s web site, Copes discusses the challenges associated with agriculture in a war zone. Highlights:
In all honestly, the Agribusiness Development Team was not much more than a big idea that said, “Hey, organize a bunch of Soldier farmers based on your guardsman’s civilian agribusiness skills, go to Afghanistan, and do some good.” It really was not much more detailed than that when this whole initiative unfolded…
Our mob [mobilization] readiness officer, based on their consultation with Army National Guard mob branch, brought us a map of Afghanistan and said, “Here’s your six or seven choices.”
We looked at this topographic map of Afghanistan, and myself and COL Cindy Chastain — who at the time was the human resources officer for the Indiana National Guard, and who ended up being my Agribusiness officer in charge and my deputy commander by virtue of her Bachelor’s degree in animal science from Purdue University — she and I sat down with the mob readiness officer, looked at the map, and said, “Well, this is an agricultural mission, let’s go someplace green.”
With about 45 seconds of analysis, we picked Khowst Province. In the Pashto language, the “kh” is pronounced as a throaty “h.” We picked that in about 45 seconds, because it was the greenest province on the map.
Interestingly enough, after we showed up there, we discovered very quickly that out of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan, Khowst Province was the most kinetic of the 34, meaning it had the highest incidence numerically of rocket attacks, mortar attacks, and roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It turned out to be a very interesting place to do business as we made our way there…
Agriculture accounts for about 45 to 50 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in Afghanistan, and employs 70 to 80 percent of the population directly or indirectly in agriculture. To get the most bang for your buck, that’s what you had to get after.
Well, there are no military formations, there are no military skill sets that deal with agribusiness in any way, shape or form. The closest is an Army veterinarian, whose legacy responsibility, now that we no longer have horse cavalry, is really confined to food safety and inspection and water purity testing. There are no military skill sets related to agribusiness production; think animal husbandry; horticulture, which is trees; agronomy, which is soils, seeds, pesticides and fertilizers; rangeland management; as well as irrigation and civil engineering and hydrology.
Some aspects of the agribusiness spectrum that most people don’t immediately think of, but skill sets that I had on my team such as specialists in education, finance and marketing; all of which are important components of the agribusiness continuum.
None of those exist in the military per se, but in the Reserve components and in the National Guard, there are those civilian skill sets 28 days a month, and people put on a uniform and do some completely other military job. Well, the big idea was to gather up 12 to 15 of these ag[riculture] experts with all of that array of skills, put a little headquarters on top of it, and surround them with a 34-man infantry platoon as a self-contained security force and let them go out and do whatever good they could in helping rebuild the Afghan agricultural sector.
The civilian agencies, such as USDA, US Agency for International Development (USAID), and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on development and agriculture, either lacked the sheer numbers of civilians who could even be applied to this problem in the proper numbers in Afghanistan or even if they could, which was not the case, they could not operate in a non-permissive environment, which is the Department of Defense’s (DoD) polite euphemism for really dangerous place to work.
We were starting from scratch in terms of what a pre-mobilization training model should look like for an ADT, what a post-mobilization training model should look like, how we should be equipped, not only with military equipment but with unique mission equipment from the agricultural sector; tractors, inseminators, hoof knives, hoof picks, tree saws; a whole array of ag[riculture] specific technical equipment that no unit had ever assembled or deployed with…
We left Indiana on our strategic airlift on 25 February 2009, arrived in Manas, Kyrgyzstan at the airbase there, loggered for about four days, got onward moved to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and loggered there with the main body for about a day and a half.
We left behind about half my security force, who were drawing our mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles. [They were] brand-new vehicles in the compound with about three or four miles on them, fresh off the assembly line. The contractors ran my security force, about half of them, through a five-day train-up on how to maintain them and operate them, all the things that were necessary for not only the vehicles themselves but all of the communications platforms and the Blue Force Tracker (BFT) and the weapons system that was associated.
The rest of the main body flew south to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno, which was the main hub in Khowst Province, co-located with the brigade combat team (BCT) headquarters that had responsibility for six provinces, one of which was Khowst Province, as well as the surrounding provinces. That would have been on or about 5 March 2009, give or take…
We were fortunate we got two shell buildings, a big compound where I could stage all my vehicles and equipment, and there was a 14.7 acre olive orchard that was in the middle of the FOB that had been planted by the Soviets in the early 1980s when they were occupying Afghanistan. That was perfect for us, right out the back door of the buildings, because it set the stage for us to begin development of an experimental farm and a demonstration farm. We were right there on the FOB in a secure and controlled environment…
We made our way to each of those district centers, most of which have been constructed by US and Coalition forces; little mini-forts, administrative space for the governor and the governor’s staff surrounded by a compound wall and guarded by a combination of both Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
We did an initial meeting engagement with each of them, introduced ourselves, what our mission was, and asked a lot of questions about what kinds of agricultural issues they had. We quickly discovered that pretty much every problem was universal. In all 13 of the districts, they had problems with poor soil, problems with weak fertilizer, problems with irrigation, problems with animal nutrition, problems with animal health, and overall problems with basic agribusiness knowledge…
In that time in many cases, between the Soviet invasion and the tribal infighting, there was a systematic killing of males over the age of six. In many if most of the villages, all the fathers and grandfathers were killed, and there was nobody left behind to teach six to ten year old Johnny how to plant the crops and how to care for the animals. There was a tremendous amount of knowledge lost that was not able to be passed on. We were literally starting from an extraordinarily rudimentary level relative to Afghan agriculture. …
We set about bringing those ag extension agents to our forward operating base for about five days and training them in some really basic agribusiness tasks, [including] a three to four hour block on how to properly prune a fruit tree. Every Afghan there inside their walled compound had a small orchard of 10 to 15 fruit trees of different kinds; apple, cherry, plum, pomegranate, peach, a variety of them; but they had no knowledge of how to properly prune…
Part of that was we assembled simple kits for tree pruning; a tree saw, a grafting knife, a metal bucket, two pounds of hydrated lime; which is the white stuff if you’ve ever driven by an orchard and you see the white stuff painted on the trunks of the trees up to about six feet high, that’s hydrated lime. It’s a very simple, cheap, organic pest management tool. It basically makes the bark taste bad and keeps the insects from chewing through it; it’s that simple.
We found out through experience when you mix it with water it generates heat and will melt the plastic buckets, so we had to buy metal buckets. [The kits also included] grafting tape and about 100 feet of cord or twine so that they could properly bind and train the branches they were pruning. …
These simple rural farmers didn’t know that there was any particular use for a tree saw or how to graft branches. This was basically a marketing effort so that the 50 farmers in — neither the district governor nor the farmers got any money out of this, so that helped mitigate the possibility of corruption, but the way that we were able to expand and enhance the influence and prestige of the district governor was we empowered him to choose which 50 farmers were going to receive the training and tools.
He would partner with his tribal elders inside that district, and they would each of them select amongst themselves the 50 farmers. They could in theory have selected all 50 farmers from one village and one tribe, but I strongly encouraged them to spread it around and perhaps get three to five farmers from 10 to 15 different villages so that those techniques and those tools went back into that village where they would, over time — [that was] the theory, time is bearing out whether the theory was valid — those knowledge sets would be self-sustaining vertically.
That’s a fancy way of saying that Afghan farmer will teach his son and his grandson how to use those tools and what those techniques were. And it will be self-propagating laterally, which is a fancy way of saying his neighbors are going to watch what happens and buy into that idea, where they look over the compound wall and say, “Hey Ajmal, how come your apples are bigger this year? How come your peaches are bigger this year?” and he says, “Because I know how to prune my trees and train the branches and keep the bugs off of them.” And they’ll either borrow Ajmal’s tools or those that are a little more savvy and are innovators will go to the farm supply store now that they’ve learned the value of that and they will buy those tools for themselves.
What they used to see as an expense, they now see as an investment. It is a rational, informed business decision now that they have been armed with that kind of knowledge. That’s the theory that we were implementing. The counterinsurgency piece of that is if Ajmal or Muhammed’s fruit trees produce more fruit, he’s producing more food for his family, they’re healthier, they don’t have to spend as much discretionary income on buying food out of the market in the winter, so it is the equivalent of a net increase in his income.
It begins to make him slightly less susceptible to the insurgents and the Taliban who come in and say, “Here’s five dollars, go plant this roadside bomb at night.” It’s not that they love the Taliban and hate the Americans or the Coalition Forces, they are just struggling to feed their family and get by. If we can have the equivalent of improving their net income and quality of life, they are slightly less susceptible to influence. That is a very simple way where we began to try to separate the population from the enemy, so that the enemy wields slightly less influence on the population…
Point three was transforming the environment. The knowledge that we left behind was beginning to transform the environment, and I would say this to the Afghan leaders I met with, because they had their hands out. We trained them for a decade to hold their hands out and guilt us into giving them money, technology and tools and building them things.
That wasn’t my strategy. What I would say to them is, “We’re going to leave knowledge behind for you and for your farmers and for their families. Knowledge is something that will be here long after the Coalition forces leave.” There was no reason to be subtle and say, “You know, someday the US is going to leave and the Coalition forces are going to leave.”
That’s hardly a startling revelation. They know that better than we do. “This knowledge will remain after our money is gone and our tractors wear out. This knowledge is something that the Taliban cannot take away from you and from your farmers.” They cannot come in the night and blow it up and burn it down, as the Taliban had routinely done with schools and clinics, to demonstrate that the local Afghan government could protect its citizenry. Every time I’d pitch that simple phrase, every Afghan leader I dealt with nodded once it was translated and said, “I understand that.” They even fundamentally understood that knowledge is power…
The point I just illustrated was about sharing technical knowledge relative to pruning fruit trees. That same approach we applied to animal husbandry, how to train the ag extension agents to train the farmers, and how to properly trim the hooves of the goats and sheep and donkeys; how to add mineral supplements to the animals’ diets so that they would be healthier, stronger, and live longer; how to use some locally available medicines, the same kinds that our farmers use here in the United States, to treat simple wounds. The donkeys would get sores on their backs from carrying loads. Right now they never want to treat the animal until it’s sick; they have no notion of preventive medicine.
We would train them on animal husbandry, we would equip them with a simple animal husbandry kit: a bottle of mineral supplement, a bottle of blue spray which is what the farmers call it, a hoof knife and a hoof pick, and that was to jumpstart them. They would see at the end of the season when they went to the market to sell that sheep or goat that it was healthier, it was fatter, and it therefore brought a better price. Now that farmer, where he used to think 200 Afghani to buy mineral supplement was an unnecessary expense, he now sees that that 200 Afghani is an investment, because when he takes a healthier, fatter animal to market, he makes 2,000 Afghani when he sells a better animal. He will now make a rational, informed business decision about how to invest. They do have small but manageable discretionary income…
I expected to be frustrated and challenged by the Afghans I dealt with. What I was not prepared for, and never expected, was the amount of resistance, pushback, and criticism I got from our US civilian partners.
They were the ones that caused me more sleepless nights than any of the Afghans ever did. I was not prepared for that clash of cultures. And it wasn’t just military/civilian; it was just different views and some of the civilians — we went, if you will, because we were ordered. We always went in with, I think, some tempered expectations about how far and how fast we could go.
Some of the civilians, the majority of the civilians, were there by choice. They were either seeking adventure, or they were seeking professional credentialing; “I’m going to check this block, get a couple of notches in my belt, and that’ll make me competitive back home inside my parent agency.”
Some of them really came over with some very romanticized expectations of what it was going to be like. Some of them had had experience in Third World countries, not a combat environment, but in underdeveloped Third World countries, and had no insider expectation as to how challenging it would be to operate in a combat environment, in a non-permissive environment where they had no freedom of movement, where everything they did was tied to the military, and they came and went at the military’s convenience.
Some of them just had a certain elitist bias, really looked down their noses at people in uniform as a bunch of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who clearly lacked the education and sophistication to engage in this challenging developmental activity.
All they see is a uniform, and they apply a certain set of preconceived notions to that. They do not see, for a National Guardsman, the person behind the uniform, who is a doctor, lawyer, teacher, professor, farmer, businessman; someone very, very accomplished in their civilian career who just happens to wear a uniform for the National Guard.
They don’t see any of that. As a consequence, it throws them off and they have pretty modest expectations at best for how we’re going to contribute and what we’re going to contribute.