Small Wars Journal

Learning Rural Engagement: Afghan Agriculture and the Future of Rural Stabilization

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 11:56am

Learning Rural Engagement: Afghan Agriculture and the Future of Rural Stabilization

John W. Groninger and Charles M. Ruffner


Military and stabilization operations in rural environments entail interactions with farmers, herders and the resources upon which their livelihoods depend.  Broad geographic swaths supporting agricultural livelihoods, seen as critical real estate for insurgents, will be the norm in future stability operations and our forces should be well trained to work in these agrarian landscapes with all their cultural and ecological obstacles.   

Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan has involved perhaps the most thorough, enduring, and multifaceted engagement among international forces and host country rural communities.  Rural engagement during OEF involved a diverse array of individuals and institutions operating under complex and novel conditions, typically with very limited preparation or experience in similar contexts.  The OEF rural Afghanistan experience is pertinent to the many other unstable settings with comparable social structures and agro-ecological conditions.  Accordingly, U.S. military and civilian institutions now hold a wealth of data from a wide array of perspectives and operational contexts pertaining to rural engagement.  We call for a concerted effort across civilian and military lines to evaluate rural engagement resources and how these were brought to bear during OEF.  The synthesis of these finding should then be institutionalized to help prepare for future conflicts in similar settings


Interaction among foreign forces and local farmers was perhaps never more important for mission success than in Afghanistan over the course of OEF.  Agriculture shuras to plan infrastructure development programs, training programs for every segment of the rural economy and social structure, multi-district planning of irrigation projects, agriculture university development, veterinarian support, and organization of crop production and commodity marketing associations are just a few examples of the rural engagement and institution building schemes carried out across Afghanistan (Groninger and Lasko 2011, Miller 2011).   On the other side of the coin, many interactions between International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel and rural Afghans proved counterproductive.  These included agricultural or natural resource development plans that failed and destruction of crops.  Poor planning borne from ignorance of agriculture and rural society produced conflict ranging from policy-strategy development to tactical activities on the ground.  Failure to harmonize with farmers/herders and the substance of their livelihoods created hardships for agrarian communities and alienated potentially neutral parties or allies (Groninger et al. 2013a). 

Constructive agricultural engagement during OEF proved to be a tremendous challenge to US personnel despite the support of the Whole of Government approach.  Few personnel had the correct technical, social and logistical training to face the multitude of situations found in rural Afghanistan.  In particular, U.S. personnel were unprepared to relate to the weakness of institutional and physical infrastructure and the lack of farmer knowledge (Groninger and Lasko 2011, Miller 2011, Groninger et al 2013b).  In order to fill the knowledge vacuum, US personnel turned, consciously or subconsciously, to resources and experiences from their most accessible past.

Family Farm Experience. Rural societies worldwide share commonalities in social structure and perspectives, and  U.S. personnel from rural backgrounds and from tightly bound urban communities put this life experience to work in Afghanistan.  From a technical agriculture and natural resource management perspective, results were mixed since practical experience in large scale US production agriculture within stable watersheds has little applicability to Afghanistan.  A quicker connection was made among those who had exposure to subsistence farming backgrounds in the U.S.  In particular, personnel with connection to the pockets of early 19th century and depression era farming that persist in some parts of the U.S. or those from immigrant families were better positioned to operate in rural Afghanistan.  These individuals were rare and, with the exception of the Agribusiness Development Team program, few provisions were made to ensure their skills were deployed to the greatest impact.

U.S. Domestic Rural Development Initiatives. Aspects of the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Cooperative Extension System, and various youth/young farmer training programs consciously or subconsciously served as models for development initiative during OEF.  Successful translation was dogged by failures to recognize key differences between the Afghanistan situation and the many years of trial and error behind successes of these programs in the U.S.  Our experiences suggested that some aspects of these U.S. institutions showed promise in building agriculture and natural resource resiliency in Afghanistan, but only when applied in a culturally appropriate context and with a long-term view.

International Development Experience. U.S. development experience also informed rural engagement in Afghanistan, again with mixed results.  The need to coordinate with broader mission objectives, technical expertise wrongly translated from personal experiences in moist tropical environments, and the impossibility of day to day interactions among development personnel and rural stakeholders limited the utility of traditional development efforts.  In particular, we noted a failure to fully appreciate the significance of key differences between past traditional development experiences and the present Afghan situation.  Reconciling motivating ideologies with social realities appeared to be particularly challenging to some personnel having international development backgrounds.

U.S. Universities. U.S. agricultural universities, Future Farmers of America and other vocational teaching institutions were tapped for knowledge and strategic advice (Kock et al. 2010), again with mixed results.  Stateside supporters had little experience to prepare them to relate to the conditions and contexts encountered in Afghanistan.  U.S. educational institutions are presently less accustomed to playing a close supporting role to farmers than was common during the heyday of the cooperative extension system, let alone supporting the practical subsistence development needs of Afghan farmers.  Two exceptions were a pre-deployment training program to provide social context and basic agriculture knowledge (ADAPT) and a web-based technical reach back resource (eAfghanAg).  Both were built largely upon Afghan field experience, but neither were operational until late 2011, ten years into OEF (Groninger et al. 2013a).

Learning from the Afghan Experience

If stabilization activities involve rural populations in Yemen, Somalia, Mali or other similar setting, personnel with Afghan experience will almost certainly be front and center.  While they must guard against over-generalizing to new settings, we submit that OEF in Afghanistan has served as a living laboratory for improving outside security force interactions with rural populations and the resources upon which they depend. We offer the following justification to highlight some of the unique aspects afforded by the Afghanistan OEF experience to inform future agricultural interactions and interventions in future small wars.

Duration. OEF in Afghanistan represents the longest running combat action in US history.  This long residence time in theatre is significant for agriculture, an enterprise occurring largely on an annual cycle.  ISAF has experienced 12 full monsoonal and growing seasons between initiation of the conflict in fall 2001 and the present time.  Politically, the duration of the war-effort has been influenced by two presidential Administrations pursuing agriculture programs based on widely differing underlying assumptions.  Programs arising from or enduring the full range of ideological foundations expressed during that time will result in a playbook that is robust regardless of where a future Commander-in-Chief happens to fall within the political spectrum.  Time engaged in  Afghanistan was sufficient to develop highly informed, self-adjusting support institutions operated by personnel with in-theater experience and gained over multiple iterations of a nearly annual deployment cycle.

Physical Diversity. Afghanistan encompasses most of the major agro-ecological zones of the unstable world.  The widespread diversity of crops and cropping practices within individual provinces reflects this.  As a mountainous country, water delivery across Afghanistan ranges from rain-fed in areas with adequate precipitation to irrigation systems of differing complexity.  Extreme topographic variability within Afghanistan allowed for agricultural personnel to draw from relevant experiences as diverse as one would normally expect to see spanning continents; that is, encompassing livestock grazing on alpine pastures abutting permanent glaciers to date palm and citrus growers in nearly subtropical environments in the lower watershed reaches.

Diversity of Agricultural Stakeholders. Cultural backgrounds and agricultural practices are as diverse within Afghanistan as may be encountered anywhere in the world.  Migratory herdsmen, upper watershed rice farmers with abundant water, large commercial grain farmers dependent on elaborate irrigation systems, and tree fruit exporters seeking to regain international market access exist alongside subsistence farmers (Groninger and Pense 2013).  The agricultural knowledge base of the rural population ranges from M.S. degree holders trained in modern agriculture in Pakistan to recently returned refugees, separated from their rural roots for a generation and now attempting to gain at least part of their livelihood by farming.

Diversity of ISAF-Affiliated Agricultural Personnel. Deployed personnel reflected a wide range of backgrounds in terms of military and civilian institutions addressing agriculture and natural resource development within their missions.  These ranged from special operation forces who provide meaningful knowledge on irrigation system maintenance over the course of hours to agribusiness teams who build local extension agency capacity over the span of multiple, year-long deployments.    

Diversity of Administrative Units. Agricultural interventions and interactions occurred across multiple military divisions, brigades, and units corresponding to more than a score of different provinces and tens of districts. Agricultural cooperation and coordination within these jurisdictions was often shaped by individual skill sets and compatibilities and fluid from one command cycle to the next. Resulting was a dizzying array of actions and reactions to policies and Afghan stakeholders, each of which could potentially generate useful insights to future rural engagements.

Studying and Preparing

A key assumption for counter-insurgencies is that providing assistance to the local populace leads to their cooperation and sets the stage for long term stability within communities.  Although this lesson was dearly learned in the jungles of Vietnam, it appears that the civilian-military cooperative framework that supported the surge of 2010 was unaware of those hard-won lessons.  The fact that ISAF employed Village Stability Operations so late in OEF is an example of how lessons learned from past conflicts are not summarized and injected into our collective operations.  In Afghanistan, there were few efforts that stress these unintended consequences from the upper level policy makers to the lowly ground-pounder.  A more concerted effort needs to be made in the future to reduce such unintended set-backs. 

In discussions with OEF veterans over the course of the drawdown, the desire to institutionalize the ISAF Afghan agriculture experience has been widely expressed.  However, when deployments end and civilians and the part-time military reintegrate back home or assume new assignments, experiences become scattered, lost and forgotten in the absence of a concerted effort to collect, synthesize, and institutionalize these lessons.

We propose a full battlefield history of the OEF Afghan rural engagement experience.  This would entail much more than a review of agricultural projects or a collection of anecdotes illustrating where rural cultural literacy or a lack thereof influenced a situation.  A full assessment needs to ascertain outcomes on physical and sociological bases.  Lines of reasoning should be followed to explain resource allocation decisions and attribute these to individual and institutional influences.  Given the complexity of interactions, this effort would need to integrate relevant civilian and military institutions across ISAF nationalities.    We are less concerned about the military, who is accustomed to studying past conflicts in preparing for the next.  Rather, agencies for whom OEF was outside their normal range of activities would be less likely to conduct a thorough after-action analysis without a formal charge to do so.  Finally, engaging Afghan partners in this process is key to identifying the spread of ideas and practices across rural cultures specifically as they exist in a time of war and its aftermath.  Finally, these lessons need to be synthesized and promulgated at all relevant strategic and tactical levels.

Studies of rural institutions and infrastructure building in an unstable and developing world context should also judiciously consider the examples from U.S. history.  Most importantly, our Cooperative Extension, CCC, 4H, and Tennessee Valley Authority, in consort with other positive social forces, took decades to actually stabilize soils and slopes and transform a typically peaceful rural America.  Even under the best of circumstances, gains in rural areas are characteristically protracted and lack the dramatic changes observed in cities.  But they are no less real and we believe well-suited for low intensity efforts that can be led by small groups of outsiders and motivated locals in a small wars context.  We hope the Afghan rural engagement experience will be fully explored by institutional historians and not left scattered in the memories of veterans and returned civilian experts, as happened after Vietnam.

Literature Cited

Groninger, J.W. and R. J. Lasko. 2011. Water for agriculture: Challenges and opportunities in a war zone. Water International 36(6):693-707.

Groninger, J.W. and S.L. Pense. 2013. Expectations of agricultural extension programs among Afghan agents and international support personnel in southeastern Afghanistan.  Outlook on Agriculture 42(1):17-23.

Groninger, J.W., C.M. Ruffner, R. Brewster, and P.D. Sommers. 2013a. ADAPT: Training for agriculture’s seminal role in stability operations for Afghanistan and beyond.  Small Wars Journal 9(8): August 22.

Groninger, J.W., C.M. Ruffner, and S.A. Walters. 2013b. Sustaining rural Afghanistan under limited central government influence.  Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 2(2):24. 

Kock, T.K., A. Harder, and P. Saisi. 2010. The provision of extension services in Afghanistan: What is happening? Journal of International Agricultural and Extension Education 17(1): 5-12.

Miller, D. 2011. Going outside the wire: Liaising with special operation forces to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan.  Small Wars Journal 7(5):May 27.

About the Author(s)

John Groninger holds a Ph.D. in Silviculture/Physiological Ecology from Virginia Tech (1995), is Professor of Forestry, specializing in Forest Regeneration, Agroforestry, and Urban Forestry, and serves as Director of International Agriculture at Southern Illinois University.  He served several TDY’s in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2011, primarily in support of watershed rehabilitation and management projects and as coordinator of natural resource management for the Afghanistan Water Agriculture and Technology Transfer project.  He was an instructor for the Agriculture Development for Afghanistan Pre-deployment Training program focusing on Rural Land Use Issues, Practices, and Institutions.

Charles Ruffner received his Ph.D. in old-growth forest ecology from Pennsylvania State University in 1999 and currently serves as Professor of Forestry at Southern Illinois University where he teaches courses in Forest Measurements, Fire Management,  and International Agriculture.  During his last year of sabbatical leave, he served in Zabul Province, Afghanistan with the Mississippi National Guard's Agribusiness Development Team as Hydrologist and Watershed Planner. Before this deployment he served as instructor for the Agriculture Development for Afghanistan Pre-deployment Training program focusing on Rural Land Use Issues and Soil Conservation and Erosion Control Measures.  Previous overseas experience was gained as Field Forester on a USAID funded program in Afghanistan from 2008-2011 and during his service as a Field Artillery Surveyor in the US Army from 1986-1994.



Wed, 05/03/2023 - 7:14am

Learning rural engagement in Afghanistan is crucial for the future of rural stabilization. I prefer to visit here Bonita Springs and learn more new things about the property. Sustainable agriculture is the backbone of the Afghan economy, and promoting it can lead to increased stability and security in the country, benefitting both the rural population and the wider society.



It is interesting that the authors saw a difference in approach based on the administration at home. I'd like to know what witnessed differences led them to the following, "Politically, the duration of the war-effort has been influenced by two presidential Administrations pursuing agriculture programs based on widely differing underlying assumptions. Programs arising from or enduring the full range of ideological foundations expressed during that time will result in a playbook that is robust regardless of where a future Commander-in-Chief happens to fall within the political spectrum."

I also tend to think that development programs, especially large-scale, agricultural or otherwise, are almost always poorly managed and yield limited strategic results. I think what the authors are calling for here is necessary to the future improvement of development as a tool for foreign policy.

Papa Somniferum

Sun, 03/16/2014 - 3:17am

The goals for this proposed meta-analysis are worthy but bilateral and multilateral donors do not want to know the extent to which the agriculture development program in Afghanistan was misguided and the amount of taxpayer money wasted on projects developed around policies that were drafted early in the Afghan adventure under Bush and continued under Obama. Not only were military and donor agency goals, metrics and methodologies out of sync (true in Iraq too) but science, technology and other tools of professional agriculture were ignored. Of course there are success stories, but not as many as you might think. We have also seen that external evaluations have often been inadequately funded to prevent the full story from being discovered and that evaluation reports have been buried for political expediency as is legal under USG and other national and bilateral program policies.

We cannot learn from our mistakes (and successes) if we are not allowed to discover them and talk frankly about them.