Small Farms and Small Wars: Planting The Garden in Village Stability Operations
Naqibullah Salik was all-too-briefly the Horticulture Coordinator for the Ministry of Agriculture in Afghanistan. He was the Afghan government’s green thumb. The Taliban assassinated him in 2013. Few of the many Afghan Ministers who’ve fallen victim to Taliban targeted killings have been a truly unmitigated loss to the wobbly Afghan nation. Salik was different. He was changing the Afghan game, from the ground up.
Educated as a micro-biologist in Yugoslavia, Salik gained further education in bio-intensive mini-farming at the Ecology Action Institute in California.[i] He was recommended to his post in the Afghan Government because of the California-style BI farm projects he’d successfully implemented in Afghanistan. For many un-recognized years, Salik got out into the pre-Biblical sun of Afghanistan and double dug its smiting soil with a hand-held shovel, three times the depth and breadth of a fox hole. He calloused his hands and brutalized his back transforming that brimstone earth into fecund vegetable and fodder beds. He cultivated lush gardens worthy of Mirwais’s Hotak palace, right in the shadow of Afghanistan’s most notorious women’s prison, Badam Bagh, whose inmates are mainly women (and their children) who sought divorce without the consent of an Imam or committed (or were merely accused of committing) adultery. Salik did not garden alone.
He taught Badam Bagh’s inmates, along with other women and children, how to garden with bio-intensive methods, thereby empowering them to make themselves and their qalats economically and nutritionally independent of heroin lords and their Taliban associates. Salik’s gardening projects worked in the merciless biological and political ecologies of Afghanistan because bio-intensive gardening does not require water pumps, which require gasoline, which require debt-entrapping loans from drug lords or Taliban.
When the World Bank caught the verdant scent of Salik’s gardens, they offered him a $120-million, six-year fund to extend his BI mini-farm projects into Afghanistan’s remote districts. The surest way to get an Afghan minister killed is to publicly grant him that kind of money.
Water is the Weapon
The Afghans with whom I tented at FOB Fenty, Jalalabad taught me the local meaning of Karez. They showed me how to spot them, and they drew maps of the local Karez systems. They got very excited about seeds, soil, and water, and Karez.
A taciturn Pashai, living with six bunkmates in a spic-and-span cubicle across directly across from me, first introduced the concept of Karez. He had never talked to me about religion, culture, ISAF, nor anything else above the level of the bone-meal dust that lay upon everything on that FOB except, it seemed, his cubicle.
So I was surprised when he chimed into one of our Chai chats with “Water pumps,” and he explained, “We need water pumps.” Continuing, he explained that the farmers in Nuristan needed reliable access to water for their crops, beginning with durable water pumps that run on something cheaper than diesel.
Farmers, he explained, are forced to grow poppies to pay the debt they get themselves into by borrowing money to pay for the diesel they need to run their water pumps, which provide the water that crops die without. His analysis reminded me of the “For want of a Nail, the war was lost…” poem. Most villages already had a Jirga system by which to settle local conflicts and mediate issues of justice, he explained. “That’s our democracy,” he said. “Yes, yes,” his bunkmates affirmed, “If you really want to help Afghans in Nuristan don’t worry about cleaning up Kabul. Find the Karez and clean them up.”
What would most improve the lives of most people living in his region was not democracy, per se, but better and more water pumps; or, flushed out and cleaned up irrigation canals and wells—more Karez. Our own DFAC daily served magnificent cantaloupe, honeydew, and water melons, along with fat, fresh green leafy vegetables. This DEFAC cornucopia had been grown in former poppy fields right outside the FOB’s hescos, and those farmers had reliable access to water, including durable water pumps and repaired Karez. It was mostly Afghans, not Americans, who piled their trays head-high in the DFAC with fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables.
The water-pump model stills dominates Afghan agricultural practices. Pumps require diesel, and the Taliban had been, when my tentmates seminared me on Karez, very successfully destroying or waylaying oil tankers travelling from Pakistan. They were well aware of the diesel-water-pump-crop dynamic. Access to life-preserving water was and still is dependent upon access to diesel. And the more tankers that the Taliban exploded with RPGs, the more expensive became diesel. In other words, water security, which is the primary concern of most rural-dwelling Afghans (of both farmers and goat and sheep herders), is dependent on road security. Other tentmates supported the Paschai’s assertions, pointing out that the Taliban had lately focused on providing “water-pump” diesel to farmers within its areas of control, while denying it to farmers still within ISAF’s areas of control. The Taliban had successfully begun to control the flow of fuel and water and, therefore, crops, including heroin-producing poppies.
I recalled a conversation I’d had a few days earlier with an ancient, vodka-veined Russian Hind pilot who’d fought in the Soviet-Afghan war. His unit had been repeatedly out-spied, out-manoeuvred, and outfought by the “Lion of Panjshir,” Ahmed Shah Massoud, so the inveterately inebriate pilot claimed. This Russian had seen many regions of the country before the Soviets de-greened Afghanistan far more viciously and thoroughly than we de-foliated Vietnam. They did it out of spite, but they also did it, the Russian claimed, because they were terrified of a toad-like, deadly venomous caudex-dwelling snake that drops from a branch onto its prey’s head, striking the eyes with a toxin that causes massive brain haemorrhaging in seconds. The Russian described a victim of this kind of snake bite: “He bled his brain out of his nose and ears.”
The Russian harked back to his first encounter with Afghanistan when, “the dusty, desolate compounds you see today were thriving with apricot, date, and pomegranate trees. There were lush gardens with fountains. And shade trees everywhere. There were more goats and sheep then. And more cows. The place was no paradise, but the people managed to grow abundant crops anywhere they could get the water to flow.” That other, earlier Afghanistan, the Afghanistan whose tribes could feed themselves, put the hook in him, and he’d never managed to cut it out. The vodka he drank like water kept that Afghanistan alive and green for him.
I now fully understood why Salik had to be killed: The Golden Rule Gardening techniques (bio-intensive gardening) by which he was liberating Afghan women and children from caloric and monetary dependency on Taliban and heroin lords lay outside of their political economic model of political control through debt enslavement. Salik’s gardens also lay outside of the neo-liberal economic model we’ve tried to export to and impose upon Afghanistan.[ii]
When my students at FOB Fenty or Torkham asked me, “What the hell are we fighting for in Afghanistan?” I could answer them in good conscience by pointing to Salik’s gardens. Echoing Colonel David Grossman, I would explain that we were Sheepdogs protecting Sheep like Salik from Taliban and Drug Lord Wolves. When I explained that he was making otherwise outcast Afghan women and children EDURINGLY FREE from dependence on poppy money by teaching them how to grow vegetables for their own consumption, well, that made a great deal of sense to my students, US Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen. The bio-intensive methods that Salik was teaching his countrymen and women actually work. They liberate a small farmer from dependence on artificial fertilizers, minimize water usage, maximize soil conservation.
But when Salik got killed by the Taliban for teaching women and children how to grow their own vegetables, that didn’t make sense. Where were ISAF forces? Why hadn’t we protected him and his sheep from the Taliban and Druglord wolves? If we had stationed “Jim Gants” in the Qalats in the vicinity of Salik’s gardens, he’d be alive today, and those Qalat denizens would be liberated from poppy/opium dependency, assuming, of course, we had not betrayed our own officers like Gant. Salik would be growing healthy vegetables in a rejuvenating soil; Gant woudl be protecting them as a garden fence, and they’d both be heading Afghanistan out of the shatter zone to which the Taliban have returned the country in the past year.
Without Sheepdogs to protect them, “sheepish” projects like Salik’s, which promise the both rural and urban Afghans true independence, stand no chance against the Wolves. Gardens need protection from predators.
Does China support the Golden-Rule-Gardens model? Or Russia? Or the current US administration? Salik was changing the Afghan Great Game, from the soil up. But, as Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus learned, it is impossible to farm and fight at the same time. Plowshares need the protection of swords, or one has to beat his own ploughshare into a sword. But then, who will grow the food?[iii]
Both Gant and Salik were employing organic weapons in the war on total chaos in Afghanistan. They were, or should have been, two sides of the same COIN coin. The Village Stability Operation was a step in the right direction, specifically as Jim Gant interpreted VSO, sans drones, sans early morning raids, with the cooperation of native warriors, living within and defending the social, clan identity of one specific qalat, earning their trust and respect by teaching them how to defend themselves from Taliban and Druglords. In her narrative of Major Gant’s VSO career, Ann Scott Tyson makes faint mention of Gant’s team’s efforts to repair Mangwel’s karez and help villagers cultivate their fields. That part of Gant’s VSO operation is precisely what earned him the greatest trust and gratitude from Mangwels. Tyson fails to explain how the village’s mini-farms -- secure water for corn and wheat fields -- were the very center of Gant’s stability operations. Rural Afghans are not only warriors. They also goatherds and farmers. Gant knew this, even if Tyson doesn’t fully appreciate her lover’s deep knowledge of the Afghan soul.
If only, Gant and Salik had had a chance to work together in and for that qalat!
COIN doctrine, as articulated in FM 3-24, is vaguely held responsible for our disastrous results in Afghanistan. FM 3-24 may explain our failure to protect Salik and his gardens. It should be alarming to know that the VSO template that was invented for and largely failed in Afghanistan is currently being fitted into AFRICOM AOs.
Major Gant, whose handiwork I caught firsthand glimpses of in the Chitral/Kunar, interpreted FM 3-24 as a ground-up model because his real COIN FM was Bing West’s The Village.[iv] As Bing had known with the Vietnamese warriors of Bihn Nghia, Gant knew how to honor the pride of place of his Afghan hosts in Mangwell, no morning raids, no drones, no snatch and grab and interrogate. Instead, he lived out the seasons with the villagers as they lived out those seasons. Gant risked what the villagers risked, day in and day out. He did not, like the typical sojourning journalist or war correspondent, educe a story from the villagers and then get out of dodge to get it published and move on to the next war zone and step a rung up the career ladder. Gant cared whether or not the village would survive in his departure. Moreover, Gant taught the villagers how to defend themselves from mass murderers and mass rapists. He left that skill-set behind with his qalat-mates.
Gant got his knuckles rapped so hard by the Pentagon because he was proving that expensive, top-down, top-heavy, contractor-provided “VSO packages” are not and never have been effective in COIN operations. Gant, like Salik, was cutting out the middle man, the “stability” contractors recommended to the DOD by think tanks. Effective VSO's get the Karezs cleaned out and repaired so that the water can flow to crops and livestock, and they provide whatever level of security the Village Qawm deems necessary to their survival. They keep the village gardens well watered and fiercely protected from predators. American Spartan has many flaws as a narrative of a warrior‘s soul, but Gant’s experience does have something important to teach us about how to do VSOs better.[v] Salik’s now fallow gardens are part of that lesson. VSOs must take the idea of a “village” seriously, which means securing sustainable food and water sources for villagers. It means planting a garden in the VSO and defending that garden.
Gant’s version of VSO succumbed to the gap between ISAF’s operational doctrine and the tactical-realities of COIN. Salik did not dodge the Taliban long enough to turn the World Bank‘s $120 million into melons, beans, wheat, and flax. Because we never figured out how to mend the op-doc/tactical reality breach, Afghanistan may now be irretrievable.
Applying Lessons Learned in Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa
By contrast, in Somalia today, we still have the opportunity to support “organic solutions” that combine both Salik’s and Gant’s methods. The ground situation on the HOA today is much like what it was when Salik began his gardening projects in Afghanistan. The war for stability in HOA can still be won, if we focus on supporting strengthening and protecting rural Somali “pride of place.” A ground observer in Somali, who wishes to remain anonymous, notes of the rise of Al Shabab in East Africa:
“This is an old fight for the Sufis - going back centuries. On my table I have brought Sufis leaders from West and East Africa - engaged them on how to combat the rise of radical Islam in Africa and the Middle East. Pride of place is a key element in this construction. Tribal people honor their oral, nomadic traditions that have spanned centuries. Teaching younger generations the importance of elder respect, maintaining time-honored beliefs and practices. A great sense of cultural pride evolves from the long sense of belonging to a particular tribe and a specific place- this is where nationalism and depending on the emotional pull of nationalism in fighting radical Islam is key.”
This field observation suggests that the global challenge we confront as a nation in ISIS and its affiliates like Al Shabab and Boko Haram can be best eradicated through the application of Salik-Gant organic solutions.
As the ground observer continues, “We cannot drone, airstrike, ground force or rout out the soul-sapping evil that these extremist groups represent, and, if we do not get our heads around this dangerous trend, we and future generations will loose a way of life so many have died protecting. There is no political dialog or negotiation with these types. There is no political doctrinal shift that can be realized- its a level they do not operate on. Nationalism, within this context, is wrought from a primordial’s perspective - which is a reflection of an ancient and perceived evolutionary tendency of humans to organize into distinct groupings based on an affinity of birth. In our focused attempt to source the best defensive and offensive technologies, combat methods and focused intelligence fusing, we have overlooked (sadly) the organic weapon immediately available to us requiring far less blood and treasure.”
Where Salik cultivated self-sufficient gardens in Afghanistan and Gant effectively taught his qalat-mates how to defend themselves against the Taliban, US leaders should be supporting analogous projects in Somalia--in the semi-agricultural regions outside of Mogadishu. Salik did not conduct his gardening projects in Kabul. He cultivated outlying rural areas. Stability in Somalia should similarly be cultivated outside of the country’s capital. This is because the majority of Somalis are semi-nomadic, semi-agricultural Ahlu Sunna Walajam’aal and not Wahhabi. Wahhabism is radically at odds with the majority of rural Somalis. As long as they can produce their own food, which is, as in Afghanistan, radically dependent on water in a region where water is scarce and bullets are plentiful, they will not be won over by any Wahhabist ideology, be it Shabab’s or ISIS’s.
We urgently need to support Somali Saliks and at the same time provide these Somali Saliks the protection of our current generation of Jim Gants. Current VSO projects for Somalia must engage regional alliances via ASWJ in the Central Region (Abudwaq and Dhusamareb strongholds) - and the south (Jubaland) and build training academies. Most importantly, these Somali-specific VSOs need to create and protect local gardening projects that employ Ecology Action’s water-conserving, bio-intensive methods, to feed Ahlu Somalis and to re-supply their own troops who would be garrisoned in nearby anti-Shabab, anti-ISIS training camps.
This same bio-intensive VSO model should be applied, with appropriate adjustment to the locals sense of “pride of place,” to rural regions in other African nations that are under threat from Boko Haram or ISIS.
However, I seriously doubt that anyone in the State Department or the Pentagon will heed this argument. Therefore, and somewhat ironically, Somalia might be exactly where we do need to employ VSO stability contractors. But who wants to pay for them today? Perhaps the European Union?
[i] John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2012, 8th ed.).
[ii] For an overview of that model and strong criticism of how poorly we’ve implemented it in Afghanistan, see Frederick Starr’s The New Silk Roads.
[iii] For an extensive historical analysis of the relations between agriculture and warfare, see William McNeill‘s The Pursuit of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.)
[iv] Bing West, The Village (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).
[v] Ann Scott Tyson, American Spartan (New York: William Morrow, 2014).