By Army Spc. Anna Perry
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 3, 2008 - U.S. special operations warriors serving in western Afghanistan's volatile Herat province have a unique security-enhancing capability in their own backyard, and it involves neither bullets nor bombs. The Shindand Agricultural Experiment Station, located within the perimeter of Shindand Airfield, is an attempt to provide desperately needed agricultural skills to Afghans and an effort to jumpstart agricultural production in the Shindand district.
"The agricultural center has many positive effects for the both the troops and the local population," a U.S. Special Forces civil affairs team leader said. "This allows us to build a rapport with the villagers through education and employment; therefore, they are given a reason to think twice about allowing the anti-Afghan forces to step in and influence their lives in a negative way. The presence of this agricultural center is a security measure in and of itself."
The agricultural center, which officially opened in May, boasts a greenhouse, honey house, four concrete fish ponds, a classroom and living quarters for three scientists. Thousands of pomegranates, grape vines, fruit trees, rose bushes and vegetables grow around the station.
"The station is intended to be used for the development of innovative approaches to agricultural production, the demonstration of new technologies and to teach and support local farmers," said the station's agricultural advisor, a coalition officer who will be the primary mentor to the three Afghan scientists who soon will be hired to operate the station.
Thirty years ago, the advisor said, Afghanistan was an exporter of food, with pomegranates, nuts and vegetables among the major crops. "I believe they have the capacity to once again export food, but they need a better handle on concepts like water conservation and adapting new technologies like drip irrigation," the agricultural advisor said.
The intent is to hire Afghan scientists who have a wide array of specialty skills ranging from vegetable production to fish farming. The scientists will teach classes and conduct research at the station and will go out into the villages and share their knowledge with local farmers, the agricultural advisor added.
Six Afghans who work at the station provide maintenance, crop irrigation, weeding and planting support.
The vast majority of Afghans are employed in some type of agricultural profession, and until a legitimate way to make money is provided, they will continue to use poppy production as a main source of income, the agricultural advisor said. The station provides Shindand-area farmers with a realistic alternative to poppy production.
Roughly two dozen local farmers are taking a three-week-long beekeeping course at the station. The material covered in the class, which is being taught by an Afghan instructor, will enable the farmers to manage beehives and to extract and market honey.
One local farmer said he is grateful to have an opportunity to learn a skill as lucrative as honey production.
A beekeeping student who resides in the village of Changan said his view is the same as that of other villagers at the course. "We came here because this is one of the best ways to make money in Afghanistan," he said. "Honey is the most expensive thing to buy at the bazaar. We are here to support our families, economy and country."
At the end of the course, the graduating students will receive three beehives, bees and the equipment necessary to extract honey.
In the future, the station also will provide courses on agricultural skills such as poultry production and fish farming. In addition, the agricultural advisor will work hand in hand with a U.S. Special Forces civil affairs team in establishing a fruit-drying warehouse and a poultry farm, which will be extensions of the agricultural station.
Through one class at a time and one job at a time, the agricultural station peacefully is creating a more secure Shindand district for both the villagers who live there and the troops who serve there.
"My idea is that we should provide all Afghan people with jobs and there will be peace," the beekeeping student said. "Run this kind of project all over the country. ... You can hold security with weapons and rifles, but if there are enough jobs, people will go to work and not steal or fight to support their families. There is hope, because the economy is improving. The security of this country depends on the jobs."
(Army Spc. Anna Perry serves with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan Public Affairs Office.)