Capt. Brandon Burton knew he could be in for a difficult deployment when the Afghan government bureaucrat he had been assigned to mentor wouldn't talk to him.
At a get-acquainted party, Burton's colleagues on the Nebraska National Guard's Afghan agribusiness development team chatted through interpreters with their mentoring partners.
“My guy sat down next to me. He wouldn't say a word,” recalled Burton, 29, who returned in November from a 10-month deployment. “It was like the worst first date ever.”
With patience and humility, though, Burton and his teammates forged a connection with the Afghan agricultural workers they had been sent to train. The Americans said they gained a healthy respect for Afghan farmers who, with only the most basic of tools, manage to feed a country that has suffered through decades of war.
“We were given a job to do,” Burton said, “and we did it the best we could.”
Since 2001, the United States and its allies have been sending troops to Afghanistan to kill or arrest al-Qaida members and their Taliban allies. That involved a lot of nighttime raids and fighting off ambushes — the kind of adrenaline-pumping action soldiers refer to as “kinetic.”
But in 2006, the National Guard also started an agricultural assistance program of the type usually linked with the Peace Corps or the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Guard began sending teams whose job was to work with individual farmers and agricultural officials. The 15 states in the program — including Nebraska and Iowa — are mostly ag-oriented states in the Midwest and South.
For the latest team, the Nebraska National Guard sifted through 25 applications for 11 spots. The Guard members selected were joined by an Army Reserve veterinarian from Washington state.
“The unit's built out of thin air. It doesn't have a flag,” said Maj. Tom Golden, 48, of Lincoln, who led the unit in Afghanistan. “People were chosen based upon their skills.”
Which didn't always have a lot to do with farming.
Sgt. 1st Class Katherine Smith, 29, is a National Guard dental technician. She was a cook in the regular Army during her only previous deployment, to Iraq in 2003.
“I wanted to try something new,” she said. “It would give me an opportunity to interact with the Afghan people.”
Smith grew up on a hog farm near Britt, Iowa, but she earned her slot because of her administrative talents. She managed the team, making sure its members — based at two separate locations in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan — received pay and supplies.
“My biggest accomplishment was making sure everything functioned smoothly,” Smith said.
Burton grew up in the southwestern Nebraska town of Bartley — not on a farm, but in a family with a well-drilling business. That background qualified him as an adviser to Helmand province's irrigation director as well as being the team's operations officer. He had served a prior tour in Afghanistan as an engineering officer.
“It had been five years since I deployed,” Burton said. “I kind of felt like it was my turn.”
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Golden, 48, described himself as a “city kid” who had spent summers on his grandfather's farm in Missouri. He was selected for his leadership skills rather than his ag background. During a 24-year military career he had deployed four times before, but never to Afghanistan.
“I didn't want to be on the sidelines,” Golden said.
Before they left Lincoln in January 2013, members of the unit spent weeks training with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension service. They studied watershed management in Texas, and both orchard management and beekeeping in California.
“We're showing them that the soldiers don't just run around carrying guns, kicking in doors,” Staff Sgt. Jennifer Feldt told the “Prairie Soldier” newspaper before the team left. “I love that we're going to teach them something.”
Theirs was the first agricultural team assigned to Helmand, a province of 1.4 million people about the size of West Virginia that had been a Taliban stronghold, the scene of bloody fighting as recently as 2012. Coalition forces suffered their highest casualty rate of any Afghan province in Helmand — 944 deaths, most of them U.S. or British Marines.
For hundreds of years, Helmand has been the center of Afghan agriculture. Farmers raise sheep, camels and goats, along with melons, pomegranates, grapes, cauliflower and onions.
“It used to be the breadbasket of Afghanistan,” said Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “(Now) people grow the most stable crop in the history of mankind, and that's (opium) poppies.”
These days, in fact, Helmand is the place where the world goes for its heroin fix. Afghanistan grows 80 percent of the world's illegal opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and almost half of that is grown in Helmand. Nearly 400 square miles of the province is dedicated to poppy cultivation — twice the size of the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area.
Despite vigorous eradication efforts by the U.S.-led coalition, the number of acres of poppies jumped 58 percent in 2012 and 2013. Opium cash helps underwrite the Taliban insurgency.
The Nebraskans say security seemed shaky at first, and it got worse during their tour — especially after the British turned over security in the province to Afghan forces in July. In the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, suicide bombers represented the main threat. In rural areas, it was roadside bombs.
“Lashkar Gah became more and more kinetic while we were there,” Burton said. “As the troops drew down, we saw the threat ramp up.”
Said Golden: “It's constantly on your mind, but you deal with it professionally.”
The Taliban would lob mortars at their small urban base, but they never landed one inside the walls — or, for that matter, closer than 300 meters away.
Golden, Burton and several other members lived in drab Soviet-era army barracks, protected by Afghan soldiers who found themselves tested by Taliban suicide bombers after assuming security duties from Western forces.
In the spring, when they first arrived, the team enjoyed pleasant days with temperatures in the 60s and 70s. But come summer, they grappled with heat fiercer than the hottest August in Nebraska.
“One hundred-fifteen was the average temperature,” Golden said. “For three and a half months, it never got below 100 in the daytime.”
Their job was to help modernize Helmand's branch of Afghanistan's Division of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. Each team member paired up with a manager. And in spite of Burton's slow start with the irrigation official, the team found most Afghans to be generally open and interested.
The team members had taken classes to learn about Afghan culture. They knew they needed to be friendly and humble. They had to restrain the impulse to impose American solutions.
“We tried to go in with some respect for their culture,” Golden said. “We had some challenges. But in the end, there was mutual respect.”
They found a government bureaucracy accustomed to carrying out orders from above but with little experience in listening to the farmers they serve.
“Our biggest success was changing their mindset just a little bit in looking at the needs of farmers — not just top-down (management),” Golden said.
In the early days of the deployment, he said, the Afghans frequently stayed quiet, deferring to the Americans to lead. He encouraged them to rely on their own government and their own colleagues to solve problems.
“At first we were trying to teach them some American methods,” Golden said. “We realized that wasn't going to work. So then we tried to help them do their things, better.”
Gouttierre — who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan in the 1960s and who has dedicated his life to studying the country — praised the work of the teams. He said it's unusual for the military to get involved in helping farmers. But the war there means that traditional aid groups can't safely work with the people who most need their help.
“For the most part, Afghans like working and interacting with Americans,” Gouttierre said. “Unfortunately, the teams don't get to stay long enough. But that's understandable, because the security concerns are so significant.”
Despite their relatively short stay, Golden saw signs that their work had made an impact. He smiled to himself when he attended a final ministry staff meeting, just before the team returned to Nebraska in December.
“They weren't asking us anymore, they were talking to each other,” Golden said. “We were kind of in the background.”
Ultimately, Afghans themselves will determine whether the work of the ag teams was worth the effort.
“Time will tell,” Golden said. “I think we made a difference in the world we dealt with. I guess that's good enough for me.”