Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

Another fascinating e mail from Robert Haston, which, again, I am happy to post in its entirety. Haston’s own blog can be found here.

How We Didn’t See the Forest for the Trees – How farm reform can be 100 times more cost effective than more bombs and lives in Afghanistan

No one beats the military in resisting innovations that threaten the status quo. The best place to read this embarrassing history is in military journals. Unfortunately, they typically wait for the last general involved to retire and/or die before hanging the dirty laundry out in the breeze.

General Billy Mitchell proved that the airplane, not the battleship would rule the seas. He was court-martialed but has become posthumously known as the Father of the Air Force. The Air Commando Journal has a great article on how the side firing aerial gunship was suppressed from 1926 to 1965. A renegade cargo pilot fought off the “fighter mafia” and the gunship became an overnight success, saving hundreds of lives in Vietnam.

These are examples of how the military reacts to internal shifts of money and power. We have been giving the military industrial complex 3-4 times the GDP of Afghanistan for a decade. There is no proof of durable progress. Now imagine how they would react to cheap, non-military alternatives that permanently remove the physical cover and concealment that the Taliban rely on. Let’s start with the trees.

Most people think the war is spread across a Texas sized tract of mountainous desert. Open up CNN’s casualty map and see that we take most of our casualties in a few tiny green river valleys. Use Google Maps to zoom all the way in to where those clusters of dots are. The wide portion of the river valley north of Gereshk in Helmand Province is the best example. You see that it is flat, green, and a patchwork of tiny fields and trees.

Those green lines are networks of knee to waist deep irrigation ditches masked by undergrowth and small trees. The ditches do provide a shallow trench network, but without the concealment of the vegetation, they aren’t very useful, particularly against any enemy with even rudimentary air power.

Every fall, the leaves fall off, and the Taliban close up shop. I saw this when I flew 220 medevac missions in Helmand Valley in the spring to fall of 2011. A British Apache Pilot called fall “deer season”, because the dumb ones keep at it for a couple weeks.

Why would a farmer in the desert waste all that water to grow trees? The trees are used primarily for cooking fuel. Meanwhile, the farmers burn off their crop waste. This waste could be compressed into cooking fuel briquettes – a practice that is exploding across India and China.

The cost of buying and fueling these machines is approximately 80 million a year – one thousandth of our war spending. A $10 subsidy for more efficient, locally manufactured cook stoves could cut this tiny sum in half.

This still leaves the ditches. They could be replaced with irrigation tubing at a similarly trivial cost. This would allow them to grow up to twice the crops with the same water. The Taliban hide in the corn, but switching to soybeans in contested areas would also address Afghanistan’s protein deficiency problem.

The Taliban also hide behind the ubiquitous mud walls that surround farm compounds. But these can be replaced with barbed wire. Ideally, these would be lowered and modified into barbed wire topped ramparts that better protect the compound. Ensuring that they have cell phone or radio contact with the authorities would be part of the package.

Each household would have hundreds of feet of clear zone and a defensible perimeter, making it easier for the clans to defend themselves. Countering this would require larger numbers and heavier weaponry. But this makes the Taliban easier to spot – in an area where it is many times easier to spot them.

This would make Afghanistan’s farmland look more and more like California’s Central Valley (shouldn’t this be happening anyway?) which is the sort of place a raccoon has trouble hiding in. This would create new skilled labor jobs in fuel briquette and stove making, irrigation, fencing and home security reconstruction industries.

There has been lots of optimistic talk about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth – which is years away and will go mostly to foreign corporations and the corrupt central government, not the poor farmers. Given that we plan on cutting funds by 90% or more very soon, what is our transition plan? What do we leave behind that makes it easier for the local militias and the Afghan Police and Army?

For those who desire to kill this sort of thing in the crib, here is my put up or shut up offer. It would take a comparatively microscopic amount of money to test this on a small scale. I would suggest starting by bisecting the Upper Gereshk (AKA “Taliban Town”) area.

Right now we have maybe two winters to come up with an alternative before we leave the battlefield to the insurgents for the third time in American history. What better tribute to the soldiers who died on these foreign lands than to leave them as a symbol of what America really stands for – not war, but prosperity and progress.

Robert Haston


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