Forestry on the Front Lines

Groninger has visited Afghanistan five times this year as part of the USAID-funded Afghanistan Water, Agriculture and Technology Transfer program. The main job, he says, is to help farmers restore 
devastated upland forests so that water gets retained instead of just rushing down in destructive springtime floods. But after decades of war, farmers often don’t know how to establish vegetation on steep, overgrazed hillsides or how to develop a vegetative buffer zone along waterways. “Men our age don’t exist—they were killed off,” Groninger says. “There’s a new generation who haven’t had the old traditions passed down.” He figures that about 20 American foresters are now working to help recover those traditions in a nation the size of Texas. The scale of the challenge is daunting. Bader estimates that many areas where he works need 300 check dams per kilometer, with enough backlogged work to eat up 50 or 100 years of tree army labor. It is, of course, also dangerous work for international volunteers and their local partners. Five USAID contractors died in a suicide bombing in July, and 10 medical volunteers died in an August massacre. But Groninger says, “It really gives you a chance to see how you can use resource management skills to make or break the viability of a civilization.”     

The military and the Obama administration have also espoused the value of that kind of expertise for a “civilian surge.” “One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked in a 2007 speech. By default, the military has often found itself organizing the critical work of reconstruction, development and governance with Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Agricultural Development Teams and similar initiatives. “But it is no replacement for the real thing—civilian involvement and expertise,” Gates said. As a presidential candidate in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama made essentially the same argument: “We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.”

That kind of expertise has not materialized in anything like adequate numbers, to the sometimes vocal exasperation of the military. “Our interagency partners are not available to help us as often as they should be,” Adam Shilling, a visiting fellow at the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counter-insurgency Center, complained earlier this year. The mistaken bureaucratic idea that counterinsurgency is the military’s business “lets other government agencies off the hook,” he wrote. “If COIN is recognized as nation building, which is interagency business, perhaps our partners will bring more to the table.”

As a small (and almost certainly inadequate) response to the continuing demand for civilian expertise, the State Department last year launched a new Civilian Response Corps (CRC), described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “an army of peacebuilders.” The plan is to have an active force of 250 people available to go into troubled countries on 48-hours notice for reconstruction and stabilization work; a standby force of 2,000 people from various federal agencies able to deploy within 30 days; plus a reserve force of 2,000 people with special expertise to be called up as needed from the private sector and from state and local governments. The first person to complete his training and qualify for the CRC active force was Harry Bader, now a full-time USAID employee, and his first assignment was to deploy to Jalalabad in January 2010 to investigate the connection between timber smuggling and the insurgency.

At the time, almost everyone, including USAID, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Department of Defense, was reporting that Afghanistan’s forests faced “an imminent ecological calamity” as a result of massive illegal logging. Timber smuggling and the insurgency also seemed to be intricately tied together, with timber contractors in Afghanistan depending on the insurgents to provide buyers in Pakistan; insurgents paying timber smugglers to pioneer routes for channeling men, money and weapons back into Afghanistan; and the insurgency itself actually owning and controlling timberland for direct profit.

Bader’s mission, says the Department of Defense’s Douglas, was “an intellectual inquiry: ‘O.K., let’s find out what’s really going on.’” Douglas’ own background is diverse, including tours with both the Peace Corps and Army Special Forces. But he came to consider Bader “the most remarkable person I’ve ever met,” partly because he worked without “a pre-existing agenda” other than determining the truth, and partly because he had the background to pull together all the elements of a highly complicated problem. Other civilian experts tend to have the scientific background but not the counterinsurgency field experience, says Douglas. They also generally prefer to maintain an academic distance rather than integrating with military efforts. Or they understand political nuances but don’t get the military’s need to see results now.

“USAID and the Army are just learning to work together,” says Douglas, “and what Harry understood were the resources he could utilize.” For instance, the military isn’t normally in the business of deploying a team of two heavily armed Black Hawk helicopters to run forestry transects, but it did so readily for Bader. As with forestry elsewhere in the world, cracking the 
timber-smuggling codes also meant understanding the brands on timber at remote depots and sawmills. The job, says Bader, was “to connect valleys, people and timber by their brand and determine whether or not it’s associated with areas that are highly kinetic, which is indicative of insurgency.” So Bader contacted lieutenants at combat outposts and asked them to let him know when they would be visiting particular areas: “You’re going to be passing a sawmill. Can you give me 20 minutes?” The platoons also served as his eyes and ears, alerting Bader to potentially interesting developments and helping him recognize and talk with local figures in the timber trade.

“If they’re doing a combat foot patrol in X area, that’s an opportunity,” says the State Department’s Paradiso. “But it takes a certain person who has courage. You can’t be the kind of guy they have to worry about. It’s not a taxi service.” In a firefight, insurgents typically shoot from a distance of 150 to 200 meters, beyond the normal range of accuracy for an AK-47, with the idea of hitting soldiers in a spray of bullets rather than with carefully directed fire. It can last from a few minutes to an hour or more. For someone accompanying the patrol, says Paradiso, the job is to “duck and cover and take cues from the people you’re with.” Bader visited 18 combat outposts over six months and came through what Paradiso calls “pretty intense firefights,” including three in as many days. “He’s the first one to give credit to the soldiers, and rightly so. But he’s also taking risks.” What he got from these efforts, says Douglas, was “radically different from what people thought.”

Unsurprisingly, Bader saw that Afghanistan does, in fact, suffer from massive deforestation. But it’s mainly in the lower-elevation evergreen oak forests, which subsistence farmers have stripped bare for fuel and fodder. This deforestation in the immediate vicinity of villages—at an elevation of 1,200 to 2,500 meters—is the cause of much of the soil erosion, flooding, mudslides, clogged irrigation systems, water quality degradation and drought that plague Afghan farmers. Environmental stress translates into social unrest. So it’s also in those areas where the tree army will do some of its work.

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