Greening Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 3/22/2011 · 7 comments

It sounds like an awesome idea:

Marine Sgt. Brian Nelson found himself alone with four hard-won barrels of cottonseed oil one day last fall in a Afghan field in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province.

Originally, Nelson said, military leaders had hoped to produce poppyseed oil as a biofuel and give Afghan farmers an alternative product for their more than 8,000 tons of yearly opium.

The Marine Corps alone uses 200,000 gallons of fuel each day in Afghanistan, and fuel convoys are an especially easy target for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set by insurgents — a fact that has not escaped the notice of military leaders. All the services are taking steps to cut their fuel dependency and switch to alternative sources, and shortly after Nelson deployed to Afghanistan, the Marine Corps commandant issued some of the most aggressive energy-reduction goals of all the services.

However, let us think about what Sgt. Nelson needed to do to get this Helmand-sourced cottonseed oil from farmer to generator:

  • Travel between Camps Leatherneck and Bastion, presumably by helicopter;
  • Gathering a security convoy to go by road to a village halfway between Bastion and Lashkar Gah;
  • Driving the full security convoy protecting an old pickup truck he purchased to carry the fuel back to Bastion;
  • Flying in a Osprey back to Camp Leatherneck.

Even then, this cottonseed oil doesn’t work when it gets cold, and increases the maintenance required on the base’s diesel generators.

Is this really an improvement?

Update: It’s been brought to my attention that the British base mentioned in this story is most likely not Bastion, as you can drive from Bastion to Leatherneck with no problems and they share an airfield. So the British base is some other base, somewhere between Bastion/Leatherneck and Lashkar Gah. I think the main points of this post remain the same.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


RScott March 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm

This is not exactly a new idea. The subject of processing various oil seeds into something approaching diesel fuel in at least Helmand has been under discussion in Washington for months. There was a conference there on the subject last October but no apparent follow up action. I did a presentation on support for the Helmand cotton industry as part of such a program. I have been proposing such support to USAID, State, INL, DFID and others since I was able to return to Helmand on irrigation systems reconnaissance trips beginning in 1997. But until recently there has been virtually no interest.
The central Helmand farmers have cultivated cotton as one of their major cash crops since the early 1970s. They continue to cultivate cotton but at reduced rates and have continued to request help with the cotton market as one of the prerequisites for getting out of the opium poppy industry. The British built the Lashkar Gah cotton gin in about 1965 that has been operational since that time. They built a second cotton gin in Girishk in the late 70s trying to keep up with the increased production. We bombed that gin in about 02 as a Taliban hideout. Last year the Lashkar Gah gin bought no cotton because they received no operational budget from their ministry and there was no doner support. The Helmand farmers could and would need to cultivate more cotton if the bio-fuel idea ever jells. The early cotton planting season for maximum production begins this month on land that was held fallow through the winter (poppy) crop season. To my knowledge, no action is being taken to increase cotton cultivation this planting season but USAID did fund a study a couple of months back to see if Helmand cotton farmers, and other cotton areas in the country can produce more cotton. They can. (see my, “Helmand Follow Up XXXII” for details.)
Reasons to support the Helmand cotton industry:
1. Helmand cash crop farmers understand and have years of experience in cotton cultivation.
2. There is a functioning government cotton gin to process the cotton which includes seed presses to produce cotton seed oil. There are several small privately owned cotton gins in the region that suggest the importance of the crop.
3. The international cotton market is at an all time high since the US civil war.
4. Cotton should be one element in a farmer friendly counter-narcotics effort in Helmand where much of the world’s opium is presently produced.
5. Cotton seed oil can be transformed into something approaching diesel fuel for local as well as military use. Presently cotton seed oil is used locally for cooking.

Briandot March 22, 2011 at 10:23 pm

So the argument is it’s hard so we shouldn’t try? Keep paying $400/gal for gasoline to be trucked over the Khyber or Chaman? Keep tilling the land for poppy? I’m not sure I see the end state here other than “let the status quo stay”.

Only so much saffron can be grown, wheat isn’t as appropriate, and the cycle of debt that many farmers get into crushes them. This is at least a thought in the right direction, rather than throwing up one’s hands.

RScott March 23, 2011 at 11:37 am

No. The point is that it is time to pull our heads out and do the obvious. Start with the support of the Helmand cotton industry that can produce much more cotton seed oil with just a little help. We have been spending millions on things that do not directly benefit the farmers or directly address the multitude of issues related to the economy (corruption and security) in this politically important region. And cotton is only one of the traditional cash crops in the region that should, first, be supported. Start with what they are already doing. And in 10 years we have been unable to establish a basic ag. credit system in completion with that of the narcotics industry?

motormike March 22, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Why are the pharmaceutical companies not exploiting the poppy fields to produce morphine? Let the farmers get rich (Afghan rich) legally, while actually HELPING the people of Afghanistan….

RScott March 23, 2011 at 11:59 am

As I remember, the Senlis Council in London proposed a village level opium processing project to produce pain-killers for at least the local markets, in about 2006, and offered to attempt a pilot project to test the feasibility of such an action. But apparently no one was willing to fund the proposal.
To get the large drug companies involved in buying Helmand opium, as they do for the legal opium production in Turkey, it would take a lot of money out of the pockets of the local illegal drug dealers….apparently including local government and police.

motormike March 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm

It would also take the State Department standing up to the big boy morphine producers (India, Aus, etc) who dont want any competition……


Theo March 22, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Bastion and Leatherneck are on the same piece of property. You can walk and drive from one to the other without going outside the wire.

So that eliminates your first and 4th bullet, but otherwise – point taken.

Previous post:

Next post: