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Reporter’s Notebook: ‘Sodbusters’ Lend Afghan Farmers a Hand

Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan — We meet the Nebraska National Guard “Sodbusters” Agri-business Development Team at 7 a.m. Most of the ADT guys are farmers and ranchers, county extension agents or agricultural merchants back in Nebraska. They all know and love the land — and they’re here to share their know-how with Afghan farmers and villagers.

They’re loading up six dust-colored humvees amidst a forest of low concrete buildings, part of the sprawling Bagram complex, a former Soviet base taken over by the Americans in 2002. We’re just off the main drag, Disney Drive, home to the command headquarters of the 101st Airborne Combined Joint Task Force, the Bagram Internment Facility next door and the “DFAC” dining facility (“Do Not Place Weapons on the Floor or Against the Wall” says a sign).

Across the two-lane drive is a strip mall complex offering Dairy Queen and Burger King, a Harley-Davidson dealership, shops offering Afghan chotchkes and jewelry for the wife at home — “Emerel (sic) Set $169” — and a Beauty Spa of Kyrgyz hairdressers whose chairs are always full of men needing a regulation cut and female soldiers getting a blow-dry or pedicure, $10 for either.

Disney Drive is also home to our digs, a concrete windowless D-hut nicknamed “Hotel California.” I’m lucky. As the lone woman of our three-person team, I and my sleeping bag got a single room, with choice of upper or lower bunk. The concrete walls help dull the roar of the F-15s, Prowlers and C-17s that take off throughout the night.

But now it’s morning — a clear crisp one, cold with the promise of warmth ahead in early March, the kind of high desert climate that in the U.S. might make this home to a fabulous resort, with its snow-covered mountains jutting straight up from the floor of the plain like a Jackson Hole, Wyo., on steroids. But that’s a long way off for Afghanistan.

Inside the humvee. Photo Credit: Margaret Warner Humvees loaded, Sgt. Matt Culver gives a rapid-fire rundown of the route we’ll take, and the contingencies for breakdown, and within minutes, producer Morgan Till, cameraman Denis Levkovich and I are in the two armored humvees manned entirely by the security escort — the Maneuver Enhancement Brigade of Task Force Warrior. The lead humvee — an unenviable spot — is under the direction of truck commander Sgt. Gregory Secord, with young Pfc. David Enriques at the wheel and Sgt. Chris Williams manning the gun turret above. All I see are Williams’ legs, as he constantly whirls around, pointing his .50 caliber machine gun at various spots in the landscape.

We rumble down the roads — some newly paved by the Americans, some rutted and muddy dirt tracks — into the Kapisa Valley, a stunningly beautiful landscape of spring-green farmland and poor villages. The plots are small, and lovingly tilled. But according to our ADT guys, they are primitively farmed. “Their grandpas knew how to farm this land, but with three decades of war, they’ve lost the know-how,” one of the Sodbusters had explained at our briefing the night before.

Our destination is a huge expanse of land, site of a hoped-for educational facility — Albioni University — where local educators hope to establish a first-rate agricultural research complex, with the Americans’ help. Today, the Sodbusters are coming to take soil samples, and get advice from Army Corps of Engineers specialists on how best to level the land that butts up against the mountains there to improve the drainage.

This is the soft side, the warm face, of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, an exercise in nation-building (not reconstruction but building anew) designed to help this agrarian society — among the five poorest on the planet — leapfrog into the 21st century. It’s a tall order, in a country where the literacy rate hovers at about 25 percent. The gameplan is to help the Afghans develop the economic and social wherewithal to withstand the blandishments, ideology and threats of the Taliban and its array of insurgent allies.

For that, the Army and National Guard units have deployed ADTs and PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams), augmented by experts from the State Department and other agencies, to build bridges and roads and help the Afghans develop their skills at earning a living, governing and managing their own affairs.

Woman in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Margaret WarnerYet seen from outside the humvee, we surely look forbidding, bristling with weaponry, towering over the civilians and crowding other vehicles to the side of the road. Some children wave, but many of the adult men look on warily. There are strikingly few women in sight, and those we do see are scurrying by in pale blue burkas. And despite the American team’s benign intent, the sense of peril is ever-present inside the humvee too.

We rumble down a hill toward a bridge. “Bridge ahead! I don’t like bridges,” barks Sgt. Secord, scanning the scene before him. “But I don’t see any wires or nothing.” Secord also doesn’t like the fact that the humvees behind him are moving as slowly as they are, forcing ours to slow too. “The slower we move, the easier we are to hit,” he says.

The sense of threat diminishes once we pass through a narrow passage in a concrete wall and onto the grounds of the future university. A half-finished administration building lies ahead, and acres and acres of rocky soil. The ADT team has been here a half-dozen times before, so not only do the professors and local leaders greet them, but a couple of dozen children as well. “How are you?” say a few who have learned the English phrase. There are a few adolescent boys with BB guns slung over their shoulders. It’s duck hunting season, and they were out at dawn. It was a good morning, they tell me. The soldiers don’t appear alarmed at being out in the open like this, but everyone keeps on their helmets and body armor.

One contingent, led by Jim Simonsen of the Army Corps of Engineers, heads toward the hills at a fast clip to confer about the land leveling and drainage ditch construction. He and Lt. Eric Sattelberg confer with the head of the agriculture faculty, professor Mohammad Nasser Tahiri, with the help of “Mike,” the Afghan-American translator. “We have to make progress on the green house,” Tahiri says with just a hint of impatience. “Time is running out.”

Another contingent, led by 35-year-old Staff Sgt. William Jones is taking soil samples. “We need to assess this, and show them what other nutrients they need,” says Jones, a crop adviser and agronomist who works at an agricultural co-op in McCook, Neb. He has a big dream of what his work could lead to — a local university that will teach local kids modern farming methods. The Afghan educators press Sattelberg for a more immediate timeline. A newly fertilized wheat field, the soccer field and the greenhouses will all be done in time for this growing season, he says. Construction on the reservoir and drainage system probably won’t happen until the mid-fall.

After a quick return trip by a more direct route, we’re back at Bagram. Everyone’s feeling good. Ninety minutes later comes word that a suicide bomber had blown up himself and his vehicle outside Bagram’s front gate — a reminder of how perilous and unknowable this Afghan terrain really is.

Editor’s Note: You can watch Margaret Warner’s report on the March 4 Bagram bombing in this video collection. And look for her broadcast reports the week of March 16.

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