LINCOLN — The first Afghan cornfield that Lt. Col. Lynn Heng laid eyes on neatly summed up the difficulty of the Nebraska National Guard's recent ag development mission in Afghanistan.
The field had no rows. The corn seed had been tossed out indiscriminately by hand.
No rows meant no good way to irrigate. Instead, the Afghan farmers flooded their fields in the summer, wasting water and harming crops.
Weeds choked the corn in the summer because weed-pulling was rare and chemicals nonexistent.
When this corn would be harvested, it would yield ears so small as to be embarrassing to a Nebraska farmer.
And this tiny crop would have to be sold quickly — often at a cut-rate price — because the Afghans had no good way to store it and no good way to market it to other buyers.
“They are barely subsistence farmers,” said Heng, commander of a 58-member Nebraska Guard unit, most of whose members returned Friday to Lincoln. “It's just primitive. When you have 30 years of war and lose a couple of generations of farming knowledge, this is what happens.”
For nine months the Nebraskans worked to reverse the ag knowledge brain drain in eastern Afghanistan.
They taught Afghan governmental officials — the equivalent of ag extension agents — better ways to raise chickens, plant seeds and harvest crops. They supervised, usually behind the scenes, as the Afghan ag extension agents then passed on the knowledge to farmers, interactions meant to strengthen the relationship between regular Afghans and President Hamid Karzai's government.
They planted 50,000 trees and started three nurseries, trying to replace the 90 percent of the area's vegetation destroyed during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, the subsequent Afghan civil war in the 1990s and then the American invasion in late 2001.
The Nebraskans also started test plots so Afghan farmers could see for themselves just how well the modern farming practices worked.
By the time they returned to Nebraska on Friday — to a raucous welcome-home ceremony attended by Gov. Dave Heineman, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and about 200 relatives and friends — the Guard unit believed it had changed rural eastern Afghanistan at least a bit for the better.
On Friday, 46 of the unit's soldiers and airmen returned home. Another dozen are expected home within a month, Guard leaders said.
The ag development team, the second of its kind to deploy from Nebraska, also ran headlong into the realities of doing business in dangerous eastern Afghanistan.
It's tough to complete a counterinsurgency mission — a mission designed to win the hearts and minds of regular Afghan farmers — when roadside bombs dot the dusty roads around Gardez. It's tough to improve the region's agriculture when security risks make it difficult to leave base.
On Aug. 10, an improvised explosive device, or IED, exploded under one of the unit's armored vehicles, seriously injuring Staff Sgt. Brian Anderson. Anderson was honored at Friday's welcome-home ceremony, where the unit's leaders said they hadn't gone a day without thinking of him since he was airlifted to a military hospital in Germany.
On another summer day, an insurgent driving a car packed with explosives blasted the front gate of the unit's base.
The threat of roadside bombs and, to a lesser extent, suicide attacks, proved ever-present last summer, said Maj. Matthew Clough, the team's operations officer. Some locations, such as the university in Gardez, were eventually made off-limits to Nebraska Guard soldiers because of the security situation.
“There were incidents every single week,” Clough said, with at least one American unit in the area.
Said Heng: “We were pretty fortunate to get out of there with everybody in one piece.”
American forces shut down all travel on several occasions, including after the Koran-burning incident in February that angered many Afghans.
Still, Heng says, the Nebraskans traveled all over the province most weeks, either by armored vehicle, helicopter or plane.
And they slowly started to see the fruits of their labor.
More Afghan farmers noticing the test plots.
More Afghan government officials willing to learn modern farming practices and spread the word.
The Nebraska ag mission in Afghanistan isn't over, Guard officials say. Next week, another dozen farming specialists will be deployed to Afghanistan to continue to work on improving the Afghan corn crop and other ag-related plans.
“I'm not going to B.S. you ... we had challenges over there,” Heng said. “But this was a fulfilling mission. Fulfilling to say the least.”
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