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NEWS | May 20, 2010

Missouri ADT tends the 'breadbasket' of Afghanistan

By Staff Sgt. Gary Witte Combined Joint Task Force - 82 PAO

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan, - During a typical day, members of Nangarhar Agribusiness Development Team can travel from green farmlands to sand-covered plains that seem as desolate as the moon.

The endless hours spent on the roads of eastern Afghanistan can lead to leaking wells, missing solar panels and broken water towers. But they can also lead to grateful villagers, smiling faces and cooperation.

Sometimes this Missouri National Guard unit provides the first substantial contact villagers have had with International Security Assistance Forces in the province.

"We cover all of Nangarhar," said U.S. Army Master Sgt. Don K. Lilleman, who is the lead noncommissioned officer of the agriculture cell. "We go to a lot of places nobody else has been."

Among other tasks, ADT works with contractors to ensure agriculture-related community projects are properly completed. It works with farmers to help improve crops and livestock. It works to educate the populace on modern farming techniques.

"It's just about shaping things and making them better and better as you go," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Parsons, who serves as an engineer for the ADT.

The Nangarhar ADT commander, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ronny L.H. Mast, estimated that 80 percent of all livelihoods in Afghanistan are tied to agriculture. Because of its mild winters and year-round growing season, the province is key to this.

"It's one of the most important agricultural provinces," Mast said. "It's known as the breadbasket of Afghanistan."

Community representatives at the government district level nominate agriculture-related projects – such as solar-powered wells, modern slaughterhouses or cold storage units – for construction. The ADT provides quality oversight control for the bidding and building process, Mast said.

In addition, the ADT supports cash-for-work programs in various communities for beneficial labor such as clearing out irrigation canals.

"We'll get locals who will fix local problems," Mast said. "That gives the Afghans buy-in to fix their own country."

The ADT has adopted various approaches to helping Afghans improve their lot. For instance, four olive orchard refurbishment projects have renewed an estimated 1,700 hectares of land, providing permanent jobs for maintaining the Afghan government-owned property, Mast said.

The fields' renewal will also impact the government-owned processing plant, which will provide jobs and marketable products from olives that would otherwise have to be shipped out of the country for processing.

"They are able to keep the money here instead of sending it to Pakistan," Mast said. "This has a direct benefit here,"

Likewise, the ADT aims to help experts here share new agriculture techniques through a new extension service program to be run by the Afghan government. The planned construction of classrooms and labs at various district centers will help bring modern farming techniques to rural residents.

"This puts the Afghan government out there providing services," Mast said. "Hopefully, it will increase the agricultural yield of the province."

As National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, many of the ADT have first-hand experience with the trials of nature Afghan farmers face. Some own farms back home, while others grew up on farms and still others – such as Lilleman – have agricultural degrees.

He noted that while the unit uses its military skills every day, helping farms develop is not typical training and the members' civilian skills were partially why they were chosen for the ADT.

"It really gives us a good understanding when we talk to the farmers over here," Lilleman said. "It's not a foreign concept to us because of our civilian background and education."

Parsons, who in his civilian career is an engineer for a testing and inspection firm, said a unit with varied backgrounds helps the mission.

"You get a bunch of people who do a bunch of things," he said. "It's pretty much a wide range of skills you can find a use for over here."

Their experience has also helped with a change in the bidding process the unit implemented after it arrived in October. Instead of designing every specific aspect of each community project, the unit requires each bidder to create their own design based on the needed result, he said.

Parson said those contractors who don't have the skills or don't understand the projects become apparent when they submit subpar designs.

"Anyone can bid, but you really see who knows what they're doing when you don't put constrictions on them," he said.

For instance, Afghan contractors came up with the idea to use several smaller cooling units for cold storage facilities instead of one large one. They also recommended using reinforced concrete columns as part of the project.

"They come up with great ideas," Parsons said. "It's all about giving them power to come up with the most robust way of doing things."

The stability that comes with an improved crop yield, improved irrigation and improved economic prospects are a key goal of the ADT efforts. During one recent mission to check the status of wells in the Goshta District, the ADT presented villages and project caretakers with new hand tools they can use to care for their land.

"I really think we are helping – not just the [counterinsurgency] fight – but the average Afghan," Parsons said. "I think we really are making a difference here."