Afghanistan’s Secret Farmers

by Joshua Foust on 6/14/2011 · 5 comments

A few weeks ago I wrote about a Pentagon program called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. I was mystified at what is actually does, and how it measures progress and success—despite talking, at great length, of progress and success.

With some digging, you can get some sense of what it’s up to now. For example, the TFBSO is running projects through Department of the Interior contract vehicles (right?) to do things like build airports in Afghanistan.

Opening international travel routes in and out of Afghanistan is critical to bringing international and Afghan businesses together.

TFBSO intends to develop comprehensive Master Plans for Herat and Kandahar Airports. This effort builds upon the economic and security gains of Herat Province, Afghanistan, and status of Kandahar as Afghanistan’s newest and fastest growing international airport – two critical entry points for business and commerce in Afghanistan.

I guess I’m completely ignorant but I’m really curious as to what sort of non-opium business activity comes in through Kandahar (from outside the country, that is—I get that flying is your best bet of arriving in Kandahar unexploded by a roadside bomb). What’s so interesting about these plans is that in 2008, Ann Marlowe bragged about Khost building itself a new airport for this very purpose, though she never said who funded it and it looks like it still hasn’t yet been constructed.

Still, it’s noteworthy the TFBSO is addressing infrastructural constraints to economic activity in Afghanistan. It’s much better than their mad quest to get J.P. Morgan to purchase a literal gold mine.

Then there are secret farmers. Chenega Corporation, one of the ubiquitous Native Alaskan Owned Small Businesses that gets all sorts of exemptions and set-asides from the government, is hiring cleared agricultural specialists to operate in Afghanistan.

Company Job Title: Agricultural SME (TFBSO)

Chenega Job Title: Subj Matter Spec VII, Advisor

Clearance: SECRET

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan

There’s nothing too nefarious about this—as a deployed DOD contractor it makes sense to have a SECRET clearance, as SIPR is how the Army talks to itself. But still: the war in Afghanistan has advanced to the point where importing American farmers to help Afghans farm now requires a security clearance. I’m pretty sure there’s a satirical story in there somewhere, but it’s just too ridiculous to even contemplate for the time being.

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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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M Shannon June 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm

The requirement for SECRET clearances is designed to limit who can fill the position. It serves to limit the jobs to people who have recently quit the military or are serving in the reserve. It also serves to keep foreigners out.

It is much like the “graduate degree in any field” requirements sometimes thrown into job descriptions. If you have access to SECRET files how do you keep track of what you know via SIPR and what is releasable to your Afghan and NGO colleagues.

There is no need to be on SIPR to do development and why would you want to give SIPR access to farm advisers unless they want to listen to Lady Gaga.

RD June 17, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Having a secret clearance makes you less of an annoyance for your colleagues– you can walk the FOBs and other areas unescorted, and can access SIPR systems in areas where nothing else is available. regarding what non-opium business comes through Kandahar– that information is readily available online. millions of dollars in fruit, cement, and other mundane items flow in and out of kandahar each year. given the emphasis the Afghan government has placed on reaching markets beyond India and Pakistan, establishing this sort of infrastructure makes perfect sense (unless you prefer to ignore the obvious in favor of insinuations and such… whatever drives up traffic on your blog, right?).

Joshua Foust June 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Hi “RD”

I’m not aware of a thriving commercial application for transporting fruit and cement on airplanes. If you know of any, I’m all ears (honestly—if there’s evidence, I’ll go with it). I know how the local economy in Kandahar is recovering, and I never disputed that. However, it’s still a big deal when a bus service opens between Kandahar and Quetta. It’s not unfair to question why we’re leaping immediately to a massive airport project when a) the Kandahar airport is perfectly fine for commercial traffic right now; and b) there are far more pressing needs for reviving the Kandahari economy like clearing the roads, reducing the legal, corruption, and physical barriers to getting perishables like fruit to market, and rebuilding much of the agricultural base that was damaged during the last two years of fighting.

You are very right, however, that I would rather have people reading my blog. Our exchange is one of the reasons why.

M Shannon June 17, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Moving around FOBs isn’t based on security clearance. It’s based on passes and in most cases as long as you’re “white” you’ll never be asked for one. You may need a specific pass to get into part of the facility- for example MEF HQ but simply having a secret clearance or even DOD ID isn’t enough.

Granting people SIPR access so they can use computers in case there is no unclas line available isn’t a very sensible way to control your secure data.

RD June 18, 2011 at 1:02 am

ah– so i guess the “not white” people just get to explain themselves every time they approach an ECP? trust me– it’s just easier for everyone to have some kind of baseline clearance in this environment. a few examples: (1) briefings– often, briefings cover classfied and unclassified material in the same session. rather than pull ag specialists in and out of the BUB, for example, they can just sit tight for the entire thing until its their turn to brief; (2) information-sharing: everything out in Afghanistan requires a pretty broad understanding of local dynamics, much of which is classified at the secret level (not because it’s super-duper secret squirrel stuff, but because everyone works on SIPR computers and we tend to overclassify everything)– having to deny that information to uncleared personnel would not be good for anyone; even were it classified at the appropriate level, having to go through the tremendous hassle (seriously, i’m talking a days-long proces here) of pulling unclassified data from SIPR and transferring it to NIPR every time we need to send it to uncleared personnel would not be a workable system; (3) facilities access: at our COPs and FOBs, we don’t exactly have a million different conference facilities to accomodate every type of visitor; we usually have one conference room, and it’s in the TOC. you need a clearance or escort to go in the TOC. rather than waste someone’s time escorting uncleared personnel in and out of the TOC every time there’s a meeting of some sort, it’s easier just to have them pre-cleared; (4) the million other annoying and disruptive issues not having a clearance would raise, none of which would become apparent until someone shows up without a clearance.

re: exports– afghanistan is definitely not going to become a massive export hub anytime soon. that said, exports have been posting pretty impressive gains in spite of ongoing violence in the south (between 2009-2010, fresh/dried fruit exports from kandahar increased 50%). also: afghanistan’s problem with market access has just as much to do with its neighbors as it does with its internal situation. even if afghanistan became dubai or singapore overnight, it would still have to move goods through Iran, Pakistan, or Central Asia– all areas that fare pretty poorly in the WB doing business report in terms of legal and nonlegal tariffs, transportation networks, etc. in other words (despite what proponents of the “new silk road” say), the simple physical location of afghanistan is a significant constraint to export-driven growth. the transportation issues faced by afghanistan are doing a great deal to dampen the demand for Afghan goods– afghanistan produces things their neighbors want, but the cost of getting those things out of the country and navigating the numerous infrastructural, transshipment, and other problems related to doing business there is cost-prohibitive. improving air links is a way to sidestep that issue and move afghan goods directly to nearby markets.

you are correct, there is an airport in kandahar already. but in terms of commercial export capacity, it’s not really going to get the job done. TFBSO is looking into an airport upgrade, not a new airport– it would improve the airport’s compliance with ICAO regulations, improve capacity to handle commerical freight in compliance with destination country regulations, anticipate and build for future demand, etc. there’s definitely an element of risk here, but unlike some other badly thought-out projects in afghanistan, efforts at kandahar airport are not following the “build it and they will come” approach. the airport upgrade would just be one piece of a pretty broad array of activities focused on improving market access, marketability, yield quality, and other variables related to export of afghan fruit. here’s hoping.

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