Of Worms and Networks
When I was the Director of the Village Stability Coordination Center in South Afghanistan in 2010, I saw the power of collaboration overcome some very challenging issues in rural areas. One great example involved earthworms.
There was a lot of killing in Afghan villages over the course of the Afghan campaign. Earthworms were some of the victims. Killing earthworms is easy. They are especially easy to kill in freshly tilled soil. You just take your thumb and push down on the worm in a pressing-twisting motion and Voila! – No more worm. Worm killings are on the rise in many rural Afghan communities.
According to the share croppers I talked to, the earthworms eat their crops. Wasps are killed in North Kandahar Province for the same reason…they eat the apricots. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Hopefully, more than a few of you are asking yourselves, “why in the hell would any farmer kill an earthworm!? That is ridiculous. Anyone with even a little bit of farming knowledge knows earthworms are critical to healthy soil and productive farming.”
This “wormcide” represents, a much deeper problem. It is an indicator of food insecurity. Food insecurity, in an already subsistence culture, is a major problem. Many rural Afghan farmers have only ten months of food on hand every year. This opens the door for massive extremist exploitation. How could an agrarian society experience such a source of instability as food insecurity?
Many Afghans have forgotten how to farm, along with other skills inherent to their degraded traditional society. Killing worms is an indicator of this problem. Many recently-returned Afghan peasant farmers grew up in Pakistan refugee camps instead of farms. In many cases, elders had all the farming knowledge. They never returned to these feudal societies. As you can see, three decades of war put institutional farming knowledge on rocky ground…sorry, couldn’t resist.
Now, let’s suppose for a moment, you are the SOF Advisor who moved into a local community and noticed Afghans killing worms. You know something isn’t right, but what the hell do you do about it?! You are up to your eyeballs in security challenges and now you are supposed to be an agricultural extension agent?! “Sorry genius, must’ve left my 4-H card at the house. If you haven’t noticed, I am a little busy staying alive out here in no man’s land,” are the thoughts probably going through your mind.
But food insecurity due to lack of knowledge is a major problem. What do you do about it? You work with the network to form a community of practice to frame and address the problem.
In the winter of 2010, SOF Advisors saw this and other local stability gaps across Afghanistan emerging at an alarming rate. Entire villages were exploited due to food insecurity and other traditional civil society shortfalls. In 2010-11 SOF leadership in South Afghanistan reached out to the Stability network through the Village Stability Coordination Center, and deep into the agriculture network.
Soon, there were several private and public sector agricultural experts, including USDA, traveling out to these rural villages to assist the VSO bottom effort. Some civilian farmers even embedded in local communities with Kandahar Province, dramatically helping villagers improve their yields. The result was a corresponding increase within these same communities to push out Taliban Extremists when they tried to re-enter these areas in Summer 2010. This was a minimal local investment cost for a substantial development and security outcome.
The agricultural community of practice between Afghan peasant farmers, SOF Advisors, and subject matter experts grew. USDA created a web site called E-Afghan Ag. This website provided Provincial crop calendars and near-real time reach back to University Agriculturalists back in the U.S. Advisor could take digital photos of diseased plant, upload it to the E-Afghan Ag website, and within 48 hours have a diagnosis from seasoned agriculturalists back in the U.S. ways to overcome these challenges.
At SOF Academic Week, USAID, USDA, Private sector, NGOs, even presenters from Afghan Ministries provided agricultural training to 1000 SOF and conventional leaders bound for Afghanistan. USDA, CAL State Fresno, and several other agricultural universities collaborated to provide Afghanistan Development Agricultural Pre-deployment Training (ADAPT). This program taught low-tech agricultural appreciation to embedded Advisors, Marines, and other conventional forces working stability in rural Afghanistan.
By the summer of 2010 and 2011, rural villages in Kandahar Province improved agricultural yields and every one of these villages who participated in this effort, witnessed local populations more aggressively pushing back on insurgents trying to return to these villages. I interviewed all of the teams who addressed these agriculture sources of instability. They consistently cited the agriculture network as critical in understanding local stability.
Who would have thought that collaboration over earth work killing and bad farming practices would have led to Taliban pushback by villagers.
This is the power of the network and it can be exported to rough places all over the world.