Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Ag and Absence

Ag left the PRT in early October, an event which devastated us but which I failed to mention here. He was slated to leave in early 2011, but the Department of Agriculture offered him a swank position in his former home bureau of resource conservation, overseeing most of the American southwest from an office in Albequerque, and he deemed it too good to pass up.

Ag had an even-keeled, roll-with-the-punches temperament that was perfect for PRT life, quick to laugh and invariably capable of finding the hilarious in every aspect of life in the field no matter how unpleasant. His departure left a pretty big hole in the team. (At one point, after a four-hour shura in a remote district in the north, I asked Ag if he knew where the bathroom was. He waved me towards a well-used and nearly full pit latrine, and wished me luck paying "king of the mountain." When I came back, he grinned impishly and asked -- "so, did you top it off?")

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of Farah's economy is based on subsistence agriculture. The most prevalent licit crop is wheat, with some "vech" (or mung beans, a lentil-like commodity) and a smattering of other fruits and vegetables -- mostly cucumbers, tomatoes, and pomegranates. Farah pomegranates (which are white, and both sweeter and more mild than their red cousins) were apparently voted as the second best in Afghanistan, after Kandahar. I, who had no idea that pomegranates were a ranked circuit, was told in no uncertain terms that Farah's pomegranates are in fact Afghanistan's best, but that the presence of so many national-level powerbrokers in Kandahar meant that no one dared give first prize to another province. Corruption runs so deep in Afghanistan that it's assumed to extend even to the world of produce judging.

Farah also has plenty of illicit agriculture, and the province ranked third in opium production last year. Massive military operations in Helmand and Kandahar, the first and second largest opium producers respectively, are rumored to have pushed a significant chunk of the poppy farmers north into Farah, and that possibility, coupled with a spike in drug prices due to a wide-spread poppy blight last year, may very well land Farah in first place next year.

(During a PRT visit to remote Purchaman district before my arrival, the sub-governor proudly proclaimed his district to be poppy-free. Ag, eagle-eyed, pointed to a field visible from the district center and proclaimed, "that's poppy right there!" The sub-governor apparently looked sheepish, and then theatrically ordered his police to destroy the field, which they did by thrashing wildly at the stalks with the buttstocks of their AK-47s. Ag appreciated the spectacle of it, but noted that the actual opium had been harvested some three weeks prior.)

The point of all this is that Farah is first and foremost an agricultural province, which made Ag, with his Masters in range management and comprehensive knowledge of irrigation, easily the most popular American in all of Farah. He never let it go to his head: at shuras, he never introduced himself as an "agriculture expert" or by any such title, but just as "the PRT's farmer." His departure left us with a massive dearth of technical agriculture knowledge, from the basics (like when planting season is for various crops), to advanced agricultural calculations like pump to pipe-size rations for deep-well irrigation systems.

I sat in on Ag's last meetings before his departure in the hopes that I could glean enough information to finish his last outstanding piece of business, a PRT-funded fertilizer-for-wheat exchange program. I took furious notes on the differences in Diammonium Phosphate and Urea fertilizers and was willing to pretend that I knew enough to make it work, but Ag assured me that the gregarious head of the Farah Farmer's Union would cover the technical details and all I had to do was quarterback the budget process. The military was doing the funding, though, so my role was reduced to coordinating oversight of distribution to ensure equity and transparency, things that fall more naturally in my lane.

The other thing about Ag's unexpected departure is that it left us with only three civilians at PRT Farah -- myself and two USAID officers. The staffing gap, coupled with a series of events that required me to be in Farah (mostly the elections and post-elections kerfuffle, followed by the military's RIPTOA) meant that my own leave was pushed back repeatedly. We are allotted three R&Rs, which normally breaks down to one every two and a half to three months; I waited four and a half months to take my first.

All of which is to say that I'm currently on R&R. I won't say unequivocally that I won't be blogging about Afghanistan -- the rambling agriculture post above was supposed to be about Vienna -- but it's far more likely that I'll be waxing poetic about cobblestones than about mud-hut architecture (which does, I will concede, have a certain charm). I'm back to Farah sometime around the second week in December, just in time to join our new communications Chief (an elementary school principal who desperately needs a nickname) on the committee for the Holly Jollification of FOB Farah.

The point here (I can practically hear the Godfather: "oh, you had a point?") is that if you're only looking for posts about Afghanistan, consider yourself duly warned that things will likely be on a different track until I make it back to FOB Farah at some point in mid-December.


Dakota said...

And while we're at it -- happy Thanksgiving from Amsterdam!

Mr. Cavin said...

And a happy Thanksgiving from Bosnia and Herzegovina! This blog is about the process and reality of a PRT tour in Afghanistan and what with the R&R's being a large and valid part of that, I think you are pretty safe talking about them as much as you want.

Mark Sieffert said...

We'll trade you some Berger cookies or some Wisconsin cheese for a few of those pomegranates please!