(NOTE: Remarks by Mr. Abasyar are through interpreter; Mr. Abasyar and Col. Poe via satellite from Afghanistan)
BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Good morning, and welcome. It's my privilege once again to be able to introduce to you the secretary of the Army, the Honorable Pete Geren, as well as the director of the Army National Guard, Lieutenant General Clyde Vaughn, to discuss the agricultural development team program which is now under way in Afghanistan.
Agricultural Development Teams are one of the more innovative ways in which the Department of Defense is leveraging the civilian skills of its citizen soldiers to enhance the largest and most significant sector in the Afghan economy, which is farming.
We also have, joining us from Afghanistan, as long as the technology will hold out for us -- the weather is a little challenging right now -- Colonel Stan Poe, who is the commander of a team now serving in Ghazni province; and Mr. Sultan Hussein Abasyar, who is the Ghazni province director of agriculture, irrigation, livestock. And they will be able to give you some insights in terms of how the program is having impact on the ground.
As far as format, each of the people I have indicated will have a brief statement and then be prepared to take some of your questions on this.
So with that, Mr. Secretary, General Vaughn, thanks very much for coming to the room today to tell us about this.
SEC. GEREN: Thank you, Bryan.
We had a little trouble getting that satellite signal, and I see it's blinking on and off, so I'd like to be very brief and introduce General Vaughn, and they can talk, and then -- depending upon the satellite -- answer your questions, and be glad to stay as long as you all might have questions.
I think the symbol of the National Guard tells the story of what we're about here.
The National Guard minuteman has a musket in one hand, and his left hand is on a plough. This is the history of the citizen soldier and the history of our nation. And we're taking that same combination of skills and applying it to needs in Afghanistan.
And just one example of the many examples where the civilian skills of our National Guardsmen and our reservists -- we're able to take those civilian skills and export them to Afghanistan and to Iraq and use those skills to help develop those countries, and use generations, centuries of experience that we have in this -- talking about today, agriculture -- and take it over there, in an economy in Afghanistan which is 80 percent agriculture, and use these citizen- soldiers, farmers, agricultural academics, and leverage the resources that we have back here in the United States to help the agricultural industry in Afghanistan get back on its feet. And Sultan Abasyar and Colonel Poe will talk to you about many of the specific initiatives that are under way.
I first learned of this, I guess, three years ago, when General Vaughn talked to me about the interest of Missouri guardsmen of going to Afghanistan -- farmers; they could take their experience and share it with the people of Afghanistan.
Everyone you're going to hear about today, they're all volunteers. These are guardsmen who had something to offer to the people of Afghanistan. They're trying to build their country, get back on their feet. So we've had volunteers from Missouri; Colonel Poe is going to talk to you about the Texans that are there; Nebraska; soon we'll have Indiana, Tennessee, Kansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma. These are guardsmen from all across the country who have stepped up; volunteered to serve their country; and to serve it in a very traditional way, but in an unconventional way when you consider what we normally expect in modern warfare.
But we've got extraordinary agricultural experts, some who come out of academia, some who've grown up on a farm. But they're taking this expertise and this experience and working on the ground at considerable personal risk and going out into the -- to the rural areas, going out into the underpopulated areas and share their experience and their skills; not only teaching farming, but help them to build the infrastructure that's critical for a robust farm economy, helping them with management of water supply, building a slaughter facility, hide tanning -- to create more jobs in Afghanistan and not have those jobs exported; feed mills; sale barns -- not just the mechanics of how you build an agricultural economy, but how do you develop markets for your products? How do you finance the development of the infrastructure that allows an agricultural economy to thrive?
As I mentioned, 80 percent of the economy in Afghanistan is agriculture. Many of the regions of Afghanistan share climatic conditions and agricultural conditions very similar to what we have in the West in the United States. You'll hear Colonel Poe talk about some of his Texans who come from far west Texas and operate agriculture operations in arid, inhospitable climates and have made it work. They're taking that experience with them to Afghanistan.
I was there last September and had a chance to meet with these citizen-soldiers on the ground, over there, and hear firsthand about what they were doing.
And it's an important story to tell as we look to the future, in Afghanistan, and better understand the contributions that our citizens and our citizen-soldiers are making to the long-term viability of the economy of Afghanistan.
General Vaughn is a person I really give credit for coming up with this concept. And he is from Missouri or “Missoura,” depends on which side of the state he's from, Missouri or “Missoura.”
And it was he, working with the National Guardsmen there, these farmers, who said, we've got something to offer and we want to help. And it's really under his leadership that this program was initiated. And it's grown since then and it's going to continue to be an important part of our work in Afghanistan and over the coming years.
General Vaughn, thank you for your great leadership in this area. And we're going to miss you. He's getting towards the end of his tenure here. But this is just one of the many great contributions he's made to our country.
GEN. VAUGHN: I appreciate that, sir, and I depend on your support to allow me to retire.
Thanks, Mr. Secretary. I'll be real brief because, I think, the big thing is to take it up with our team downrange real fast. Then you can come back to us.
That's been done entirely under Secretary Geren's watch. I really appreciate all the great support for this. It's a non- traditional use of soldiers. There's no doubt about that.
A couple of the things that we were really -- that we really wanted to bring to this -- we wanted a habitual relationship between a state and either a tribe or province. And that's what we've got.
This is something that you don't go in one time, come back out, and you never see the same people or the same team again. And this approach brings the state. It brings that agriculture community of that state – either through the farm bureaus or the big cooperatives -- and the universities.
That's part of what you're going to hear in just a second. So there's a lot of synergy wrapped around this. And we're just awfully proud that we can use these citizen-soldiers and the skills they've got, in this particular approach, which is so vital to Afghanistan.
Now, let me -- while we've got them on there, what I'd really like to do is drop to Colonel Poe and Sultan Hussein, before we leave them.
COL. POE: Hello. I'm Colonel Stan Poe. I'm the commander of the Texas Agribusiness Development Team in Ghazni province. (Audio break.)
The team consists of an agriculture team, security force and headquarters. The agriculture soldiers were selected based upon their civilian skill set, their formal education and their experiences.
When we got to Ghazni, we set out to establish relationships, conduct assessments of the area, agriculture and agribusiness -- (audio break) -- and began providing -- (audio break). We're working closely with the Afghan officials, including the Ghaznian director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, who I have sitting here with me today, the provincial governor, district sub-governors, district -- (audio break) -- agents and mayor of city -- the mayor of Ghazni City, the village elders -- (audio break) --. And we use Texas A&M as our reach-back partner.
Our premise for project selection is based on a provincial development plan, the director of agriculture's objectives and the needs of the people. Every project that we pursue must be sustainable. What I mean by sustainability is that, as we -- (audio break) -- that the Afghans -- (audio break) -- and conducting maintenance on the projects that we provide.
The largest challenges that we face related to agriculture in our area are availability of water and power. One of our projects addressed -- (audio break) -- around Ghazni City -- (audio break) -- river and installed several check dams, and by that project, we extended -- (audio break) –water supply by at least one month and reduced erosion in the area. This provided 100 jobs -- (audio break) -- Afghan people.
We're also addressing power issues through micro-power systems utilizing windmills and solar power on several projects. We've also assisted the director of agriculture by enhancing or developing lines of business in agriculture, the first one being education. We're developing a program for high school ag education which allows seniors to learn agriculture in a one meter by one meter plot of land, soil -- (audio break) -- techniques. We have -- (audio break) -- agriculture school with agriculture books.
We are constructing a research and experimental farm on the end of our FOB which we bring the university students in -- (audio break) -- new techniques. We then take -- (audio break) – farms that we are implementing -- (audio break) --.
-- (audio break) -- micro-power, cold storage, grow crops, greenhouses, aviaries, orchards, livestock -- (audio break) -- and erosion control.
We also have an extensive agriculture -- agriculture extension agent education program. We've also developed a livestock business, line of business. We're developing a feed mill for -- (audio break) -- control people -- (audio break) -- in the area.
We're building a sale barn with an in-house veterinarian. The veterinarian will inspect the animals ready for sale and provide a sheltered area to show the animals. This will provide employment for 20 personnel. We're also building a slaughter facility, which is almost completed -- (audio break) -- butchers of Ghazni City will use the slaughter facility.
Right across the street from the slaughter facility is a hide- tanning facility and hides -- (audio break) – be used in the tanning facility to make finished goods. This will employ 35 to 40 people.
Future planned projects, we're looking into a -- (inaudible) – or a wheat seed farm, 20,000 acres worth of wheat seed, and this -- (audio break) -- 20 provinces in Afghanistan. This has the potential to employ 400 personnel.
We're also looking at a wool-washing facility -- (audio break) -- process wool from washing -- (audio break) -- weaving, and rug and carpet making. This can also provide several -- 100 new jobs -- (audio break).
On that -- (audio break) -- turn it over to the director of agriculture for his comments.
MR. ABASYAR: Hello to everybody. Thank you for the time. And let me introduce myself. My name is Sultan -- (audio break) -- director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock in Ghazni province.
As you all know, Afghanistan is a very agricultural country, and 85 percent of the people are directly and indirectly involved with the agricultural businesses.
As we all know, Afghanistan has had 30 years of war, and the war resulted in the destroying and the damage of the cultural infrastructure and as well as the agriculture and business in this country.
Agriculture is also one of the main part of destroyed parts of the infrastructure in the country. Formerly, 85 percent of the people were making their life from agriculture. Most of the damage -- (audio break) -- of agriculture has taken -- (inaudible).
All the Afghanistan people have tried a lot to improve the agriculture business after the civil war in the country. But the difficulties and the damages are too much. The people of Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan are working together to regenerate, but it's still challenging for both of them to do it. The country needs help from the international community from all over the world, especially the United States armed forces as a lead with the agricultural business.
Ghazni province, which is one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, has experienced a lot of agriculture damage as well … especially for the last five years, 1379 to 1383, because of the low water problems and as well as the water shed-- (inaudible). Fifty to 80 percent of -- (audio break) -- do not work because of the lack of the water system.
Sixty to 80 percent of agriculture grounds has been destroyed. Sixty- five percent to 75 percent of the orchard system has been destroyed. Seventy-five percent of water system water is -- (inaudible). Because of this damage, as I have been saying, that's why the farmers have started to move internally in Afghanistan and externally as well.
Coming from the -- (inaudible) – explain problems that I have mentioned to you all, we helped to rebuild the agricultural system and to -- (audio break). The agriculture development in Ghazni province needs a lot of help from international community. We need to improve the water system, the power system, the improved seeds, fertilizer, animal husbandry and trained personnel to improve the agricultural system there.
We are happy to have the agricultural development -- (audio break) -- Ghazni. They are help transfer the agriculture -- (audio break) -- issues in Ghazni.
This is the second Agricultural Development Team that started working with Ghazni -- (audio break) -- directly together in Afghanistan.
For the first time in my life, I met the Agricultural Development Team from Texas -- (audio break) -- stayed in military base for the first time -- (audio break.). And this whole team is comprised of all technical, agricultural, development -- (inaudible).
This team is currently working on seven districts, from 19 districts of Ghazni province. And they are working -- (audio break) -- irrigation and livestock programs.
The Agricultural Development Team at the directorate of -- department of agriculture and irrigation and livestock is every weekly meeting, where you discuss the whole issues. And we find out the best way to get the project done, and there's a good cooperation between us.
Currently we are working on several projects together. (Audio break) – a research farm, a slaughter place, and as well as some training for the students of agriculture -- (audio break) -- students in Ghazni province. In addition, this team is planning -- (audio break) -- The projects that we are currently working is improved seeds, animal clinic, veterinary as well as -- (audio break) -- for production.
By implementing these projects, these projects will help the whole people of Afghanistan, and especially the people in Ghazni province with their agricultural businesses.
This team, as well as providing assistance with building protection walls in district -- (inaudible) -- to protect the people with potential water problems. And this causes the reducing of flooding, potential danger for people. This project as well has helped us to save some water and use it for the agriculture businesses. This team has as well -- (audio break) --- water irrigation with demonstration farms as well. So they -- (inaudible) -- do as well as the people from the agricultural department can learn the new -- (inaudible) -- and get good use of it.
I'm one of the agricultural directors, of one of the provinces in Afghanistan, and I would like to personally say that we have benefited a lot from these agribusiness, and we appreciate -- (audio break). We are very thankful for what they are doing, and we would appreciate it a lot.
All the projects that we have been talking about have been decided in coordination with my suggestions and as well as the Agricultural Development Team.
COL. POE: Ready for questions?
MR. ABASYAR: Yes, please.
MR. WHITMAN: Yes, what I'd like to do now is -- well, first of all, I thank you for bearing with us with the technology, there. We do have Colonel Poe's statement, which we'll pass out to you, so where you've missed some of the gaps you'll be able to have that.
Let's move right, though, into questions. And let me ask General Vaughn and Secretary Geren to come back up. And if you'd direct your question to a particular person, that would be helpful. Or they'll direct it, based on the subject.
Let's go way in the back.
Q This is David Wood from The Baltimore Sun. This question is for Colonel Poe. I'm wondering whether you work with the local -- if there is a local PRT and, if there is, whether you're working with them, or why you're not sort of embedded in that sort of structure?
COL. POE: Yes, there is a PRT on the FOB with us and they have a -- (audio break) -- and we work very closely with USDA, and our efforts are combined. Anything agriculture, they usually pass it to us, since we're the agriculture experts. And if we run across anything that's governance or development related, we pass it on to them. So we work pretty closely with them.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff, go ahead.
MR. SCHOGOL: All right. This is Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Don't know whose question -- whose lane this is in, but I understand a major problem with agriculture is getting the produce to markets, because of the security situation. How do these teams plan to alleviate that situation?
COL. POE: I can take that. We're the first agribusiness -- (audio break) -- in Ghazni. And agribusiness -- there is a market all around that. In order to get products to market, you need to have a surplus. Some of their products, they do have surplus. Others are just subsistence.
As far as our projects go, we've had no security situations with our agriculture projects. Now, getting the products to markets, the Afghanis have a -- have their own way -- (audio break) -- to market, and if we go beyond subsistence level, or beyond local level, then I anticipate that the security will be improved to allow that to happen.
Q This is Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. The question's for the secretary, and also for the sultan. As far as development in Afghanistan and also in the agriculture sector, how can you discuss the situation today, as far as Taliban and al Qaeda are back in most of the Afghanistan provinces, according to the press reports here?
COL. POE: Yes, can you repeat that?
MR. WHITMAN: Let's see if I can paraphrase for you. The question pertained to -- again, back to security, and how your program is being impacted by Taliban or al Qaeda that are operating in Afghanistan.
COL. POE: Yes.
Like I said before, our -- (audio break) -- no enemy activity on any of our project sites or any of our endeavors. As far as getting the products to market, since this is our first year, we're still early in this program -- (audio break) -- from development phase. And we are coming up with pretty good ways to get products to market.
Q Hi. It's Jennifer Griffin from Fox News. Can I ask both of you, do you have a poppy problem in the Ghazni province? And how are you dealing with that? Are you doing any crop substitution? Are you working with locals on that issue? Or is that not really a problem in your area?
COL. POE: (Off mike.)
Q Poppy and drugs.
COL. POE: As far as property issues go -- (audio break) -- all the projects that we implement are on government land. And before we dive off into a project, we get the documentation from the governor or the -- appropriate government official, since we are on the government land.
MR. WHITMAN: Let me see if I can help clarify the communications here. Actually, what the question was was pertaining to poppy, to drug crops and how you might be dealing with that -- alternative crop programs, those type of things? I think I got the gist of the question there for you.
COL. POE: Okay. In Ghazni, we really -- we haven't run across any poppy issues. And it's not the job of Agribusiness Development Teams to eradicate poppy. But Ghazni, there are no issues, as far as that goes.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Just wanted to make sure we weren’t cutting somebody else off.
Ken, go ahead.
Q Ken Fireman from Bloomberg News. This is a question for whoever cares to address it. There are obviously strategic reviews of our Afghan policy and strategy going on at several levels. I wonder if you could talk about how the program that we've been hearing about today fits into the broader strategic picture.
SEC. GEREN: We have a comprehensive strategic approach to Afghanistan, and this is an important piece of it. This program is in its infant stages. As Colonel Poe noted, it's -- we're really in the first annual growing season.
But this fits very well into the overall concept of trying to build a stable Afghanistan that can stand on its own and become economically self-sufficient and certainly self-sufficient in feeding itself.
So that's an important piece. It's a new initiative, but it's very supportive of the long-term goals for the country.
Q One quick follow-up. Is this the kind of program that needs to be up-resourced, if you will? In order to get Afghanistan right, do we need to put more into this kind of program?
SEC. GEREN: This is a pilot. There are many skills, experiences and resources that our -- that our Reserve component can bring to bear in this effort. This is just an example of that.
But you see those civilian skills have been imported through the assignment of guardsmen and reservists throughout Afghanistan and have been helpful in many areas; agriculture is just one of them. This one is particularly innovative because of not only what they're doing on the ground but the reach-back to draw on the academic and research capabilities here in the United States.
I think it's a very promising program and where it goes from here is -- the future will tell us. But it's been successful; it's been well-received in Afghanistan and I think it holds great promise for the future.
Q Mr. Secretary --
MR. WHITMAN: Let's get some other folks here. (Name inaudible.)
Q On just a couple of basics, can you -- maybe General Vaughn or the secretary talk about how many teams exist in how many provinces or maybe sketch out for us sort of what the pilot program plans to do in terms of numbers, teams, over what period of time? You know, when is the pilot program over? When will you review it and make a decision on whether to extend?
GEN. VAUGHN: Yeah. As far as review, I think that the overwhelming desire for this program to be extended is probably some of the grounds that you've got to look at. In other words, each one of these, you know, tribal chiefs come back, immediately they want to know where theirs is at. It's just like the secretary saying the same thing from his point of view.
We went into this with Missouri from the front end of this because the great adjutant general there was a friend of ours. And, you know, both sides of the Congress -- and I talked to Mr. Secretary before we started this; got Ike Skelton on one side and Senator Bond -- you know, both sides said, you know, we're going to be supportive of this and we're going to help you.
And so we knew going in that we had to inspire probably the agriculture community. The president of the Farm Bureau is a childhood friend of mine, all the way through, so he brought that million-person organization in on top of this. Now all these members that are down there are part of that organization.
And then the universities, of course -- and there were many universities already there.
So this was a synchronizing piece, because all of a sudden -- you know, this is not necessarily a permissive environment. And this organization here has the capability to rally all those forces.
Well, we look at it as long term. You know, don't go in one time and then walk away and the farmers not have a relationship or see the same universities or the same people time after time. And that was the condition that we entered into it.
So the next thing was, guess what. Texas A&M's all over Afghanistan, right? Great agriculture university; it only made sense that we went to Texas and put them on top of this. Well, quickly come the requests from the theater for more of these teams. And so the third one, in the case of Nebraska, is in there now. So there's three. And there's getting ready to be three more. There'll be six more at the end of this year, and there's three more behind that getting ready to go.
Now, how many can we -- how many can we do? One per province -- I don't know what that answer is. Maybe 10, maybe 15 if that's the requirement. But again, when we review the program, when there's a program review of the whole thing, I'm confident that it's exactly what we ought to be doing. And how big it's going to be, I think that we'll just have to wait and see. And the success of the farming program's going to take a little while, as you know. I mean, these are not things that you turn around overnight.
In the case of the poppy piece, this is not about taking and coming up with a magic bullet, in terms of a crop. This is about an agriculture development program for the country. And they're not into eradication. They're into helping these folks get to some level of subsistence, being able to take care of themselves and then having a surplus and putting all those kind of conditions in place to get them on their feet; great agricultural capability in the country.
Does that help?
MR. WHITMAN : We're going to have to get these gentlemen on their way. But maybe we have time for one more here.
Q (Off mike.) I wanted to ask a couple of Texas-centric questions. I was wondering, could you describe the Texas A&M team and what they're doing exactly?
And I wondered if Colonel Poe could describe the landscape there. Does it compare to a particular part of Texas? And I wondered if he personally farms or ranches.
COL. POE: As far as Texas A&M, we had a meeting with the faculty and dean of agriculture, school of agriculture at Texas A&M, before we deployed to country. We are in regular communication -- (audio break) -- great input.
(Audio break) – the landscape in Ghazni, it's pretty much high plains. We're at 7,200 feet elevation. It reminds us a lot of West Texas. West Texas is not quite that -- (audio break) – barren and desolate. There are some agriculture-rich areas. Wherever there's water, you're going to have a lot of good agriculture.
As far as my experience goes, I'm a career infantry officer. I've been infantry for 25 years. My experience with agriculture is helping my grandparents on their Kentucky farm when I was a child.
SEC. GEREN: He could talk further about the Texas A&M relationship. But many of the team members are farmers. Many of the ones from Texas are, as well as Missouri.
You have folks that were ag extension agents in their day jobs. You've got people who have actually conducted significant farming operations and then people that are in the -- on the economics side of agriculture as well.
The teams, I think, there are about 60 from Texas, about the same size from Missouri. And the teams include a variety of skills and experience; some academics, some extension agents and then some farmers and some technical people, some engineers that can help with construction.
Several of these projects are construction projects: the new slaughter barn, the tanning operation. So it's a mix of skills, everything from get-your-hands-dirty farmers to civil engineers and academics as well.
There's a team from Texas A&M, and Colonel Poe might speak to that in more detail, that went over there last fall and consulted on the ground and then serves as a resource, a reach-back resource.
Colonel, do you want to talk more about the Texas A&M role and what they've done over the last several months?
COL. POE: Specifically one of the tasks that we did is, we sent soil samples to Texas A&M, and they evaluated that for us.
They've also advised us on what would be good in this environment as far as crops go -- planting times and those sorts of things. They've been really beneficial to our operations.
I'd also like to point out that one of my team members is -- (audio break) -- a student at University of Texas in Austin, and he's the brains behind some very creative wind power and solar power -- (audio break). And on our demonstration farm, we're running a compressor through water that's running down a pipe, and then a windmill pumps the water back uphill, and it's just like an eternal battery. So we have some very creative and smart guys on the team, and that's really coming up with some solutions that -- (audio break).
MR. WHITMAN: Let's finish up with Luis.
Q Mr. Secretary, in this conflict we've seen the military get involved in stepping up in other areas, like agriculture, because the interagencies process really hasn't worked out, as we've heard from senior leadership. Is this a project that could be enhanced by USAID or by the Agriculture Department being able to provide more resources, or is this something that you can continue on your own?
SEC. GEREN: Well, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams do have representatives from other agencies of government. I think the magic of this approach is the civilian skills that you're able to bring to bear on the economic development in Afghanistan. The citizen soldiers, their full-time job is something other than being a soldier. They make a living in agriculture. They make a living in agricultural academia. They're engineers. They bring state of the art technology when it comes to the use of wind and other resources.
So I don't think, regardless of how robust the interagency role becomes -- and again, there are -- you can talk to the folks in -- PRTs, that you have representatives from many of the other agencies, but you have -- the day jobs that the citizen soldiers are able to draw on and take to theater, I don't think there's really any substitute for that. And they would be great partners with leaders from the Department of Agriculture and other government agencies, economic development agencies, USAID. State Department plays a major role in all these PRTs.
But having these citizen soldiers, who are soldiers, they're trained soldiers, you can put them in a non-permissive environment, and then they're in that environment and they're able to draw on their life skills, their civilian skills, and bring that experience right on the ground to Afghanistan's -- citizens of Afghanistan.
And I think there's really few other resources that we can offer as a nation that offer as much practical benefit as what the citizen soldier offers over there. So, regardless of how the situation develops in Afghanistan and the size of the rest of the government's role, I think the on-the-ground experience that the citizen soldiers have to offer will remain an important piece of that future.
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- all four of you again, both in Afghanistan and here in the briefing room, for bringing us this creative project that's going on in Afghanistan. It's not often that we get to talk about agriculture in this room. And it's kind of refreshing to have something other than just the security line of operation that we talk about.
So, thank you for bringing this to our attention and for all the work that's being done in this area. And we look forward to perhaps hearing more about this in the days ahead.
SEC. GEREN: Thanks, Bryan. And thank you all very much. And thanks for your patience with the technology challenges.
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