ADTs Are One Way Forward

by Joshua Foust on 7/30/2009 · 7 comments

The Agribusiness Development Teams are one of things we should be doing more of in Afghanistan but they barely ever get mentioned. Essentially National Guard units who all have backgrounds in agriculture and business experience, they are kind of like the security mentor teams only for farmers. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to two different teams, both of which seriously knew what they were talking about, and even knew the basic soil and nutritional deficiencies to correct (though they were, like everyone, including me, optimistic about what they could achieve on their tour).

For example, one team going to the Northeast was trying to build up model farms, use those to demonstrate low-tech farming techniques that might make land more productive (simple things, like planting in rows and rotating crops with nitrogen-fixing crops), showing the benefits of actually planting improved seed instead of grinding it into flour, and even exploring ways to introduce new genetic variety for cattle and goats. Another wanted to see how it could positively affect the nutrition of livestock in particular, with a focus on creating a sustainable herd of milk and meat animals that would be easier to maintain and cheaper to keep fed.

Are these teams fundamentally utopian? In a manner of speaking, yes, but that doesn’t make their job any less vital. Because no matter how pie-in-the-sky the ideas may seem (like, could they really import goat semen?), they’re doing the difficult, and quite “unsexy” teaching-the-Afghans-to-fish kind of work that will actually achieve some sort of local stability and long-lasting economic development.

NewsMatters just visited the ADT at FOB Salerno in Khost province. I had the pleasure of meeting these guys very briefly when I was there in March, and they at least seemed to have all the right ideas. As the story says, they are looking at ways of improving Khost’s livestock stocks, one of those basic fundamental-type problems that get lost in all the hifalutin’ talk about governance and capacity. They even seem to have some excellent support from the HTT there, which seems to have a handle on helping them navigate Khost’s rather complex social fabric.

ADTs are another example of the small, very locally-focused sort of program that is one of the best, most reliable ways we can improve things in Afghanistan. If ADTs could be even further modified to operate more like ETT/PMT/OMLTs, that’d be even better: taking small teams of agricultural advisers (as many civilians as possible as well), and embedding them in farming communities to revamp the food systems. It’s the kind of thing that is an unequivocal good, the brings immediate tangible benefits to an entire community, and cannot be written off by the Taliban as an evil militaristic action of an invading crusader.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, ADTs are few and far between. For one, there aren’t all that many National Guard units composed of farmers. For another, it’s questionable whether that should be the military’s job or not. The Department of Agriculture probably would be where that expertise comes from, but they’re strained even to provide single advisers to an entire Brigade, to say nothing of a small team of agriculture experts that can be repeated in multiple areas. And as much as we remain a country of farmers (at least in our popular imagination), America really doesn’t have all that many actual farmers in relation to her population. So it would be a tall order indeed to get several hundred agriculture experts, give them the requisite cultural and language training to function, and provide them with a reasonable amount of security while they do their jobs.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. If we’re going to take a look at a truly long-term, permanent solution to Afghanistan’s problems, since that is what will ultimately deny the insurgency the legitimacy it so desperately needs, then we need to look at plans like this. The ADTs are an immensely useful first step.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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steve July 31, 2009 at 10:10 am

this is a cool story… so, these soldiers with pitchforks aren’t embedded in communities? rather, they travel, sort of like PRTs, to areas, do their thing, then head back to base, with occasional overnights in the field? i was just reading something from ICARDA/CGIAR, the international seed-bank organization, that said Afghanistan and central Asia are about to get hit with UG-99, the stem rust plague that has decimated wheat crops in east and north Africa. Apparently CGIAR/ICARDA has a guy on the ground in Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust July 31, 2009 at 10:35 am

Yeah, they operate much more like a PRT than anything else. I happen to think PRTs have it desperately wrong in how they function, so it strikes me as (slightly) misallocation what would otherwise be a good resource.

Andres July 31, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Very interesting story, I have read a few other pieces on efforts to replace poppies by saffron, and japanese development aid in agriculture, but somehow it seems to me that what you are describing is related mostly to conflict zones (the most serious at least) where the afghan military would be most active – stretched as it is, and ADTs as you describe being so few, it occurs to me that perhaps although the Department of Agriculture could have some of the expertise for this one should also look at other members of the coalition with perhaps more expertise in this type of farming – plenty of examples in India, Thailand, or even Latinamerica, were one to imagine such cooperation schemes growing and becoming sustainable.

Eli July 31, 2009 at 12:57 pm

One of the most frustrating experiences I had in Afghanistan was at the site of an ADT project near Bagram. The site was a demonstration plot for grapes – the ADT was trying to introduce better growing techniques including trellises (currently Afghan farmers grow grape vines that splat out of a mound, so the grapes lie on the ground and rot before they can be harvested). I asked locals what they thought of the project, and they were mostly indifferent. One said the project was “a joke” and that if we really wanted to help the people we would give them all jobs on Bagram. Sustainability is great and all, but only if the people want to be self-sustaining.

anand July 31, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Andres makes a good point. China, India and Thailand in particular could probably contribute thousands of agricultural specialists. Any other countries good at agriculture?

Why isn’t Obama asking them to contribute? Why isn’t the Afghan Parliament passing resolutions asking foreign countries to contribute agricultural specialists?

Jeff August 3, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Following on Anand’s comment: the agricultural expertise exists in China, India and other developing countries, but realistically the money has to come from the U.S. There’s potential for synergy here.

Hiring Asian consultants would be one way for the ADTs to extend their resources — no pun intended — but if that’s what Washington wants to do, wouldn’t it be more practical to channel funding through the PRTs, or better yet USAID?

Full disclosure: I work for a military contractor in Kabul that specializes in an entirely different line of activity. But due to my interest in this topic, I was able to tack a small ag-extension project onto a very large bid which focuses mainly on our area of specialty.

My approach was exactly what Anand describes. We offered to hire consultants from another developing country to teach Afghan farmers how to grow a high-value item that isn’t currently produced here, but easily could be.

We’ve just been informed that we won the bid, and I’m starting to think now about how I can make this element of the project succeed. Anyone who considers himself well informed about agriculture — as I do not — is welcome to drop me an email for more details.

anand August 4, 2009 at 2:39 am

Jeff, India has given or pledged $2.1 billions in grants to Afghanistan. India could easily offer billions in additional grants.

AQ linked networks and the Taliban also pose a grave threat to China:
China complained vigorously about Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s.

India and China should both contribute a lot more money to Afghanistan in addition to allowing their citizens to be hired as economic development agents.

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