Forestry on the Front Lines
By Richard Conniff
Early in August, before he rotated back to the States from Afghanistan, a civilian resource manager named Harry Bader ran a forest transect across the Tora Bora Mountains, the rugged border country notorious as the one-time hideout of Osama bin Laden. Bader was traveling in a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter, with a second Black Hawk in support, flying the landscape 250 or 300 feet above the treetops at about 70 miles an hour, well within range of ground fire. The job was to inventory marketable timber by tree species, crown diameter and height. Smuggled across the Pakistan border, a single big cedar tree can sell for $1,000, more than most local households earn in a year.
U.S. and coalition military forces had been acting on the belief that trade in black-market timber, like trade in opium, was providing cash for the Taliban, al Qaeda and other insurgents. Worse, it was turning mountain villages away from the Afghan national government, which banned tree harvesting in 2006. Timber smuggling also got the blame for the widely reported destruction of the upland forests. Bader, who wears a Yale Forestry cap and jokes about leading the Yale forestry extension service in Afghanistan, was figuring out the details of that trade by traveling on foot and by air into areas his military escorts call “kinetic,” meaning “extremely violent.”
He was also working to use that knowledge to woo the timber-smuggling villages back to the side of the Kabul government. To that end, Bader and a small band of colleagues headquartered in Jalalabad were also organizing a civilian forestry corps that has become known as the Afghan tree army. While the military works to defeat insurgents with M-16s and Hellfire missiles, the ambition is for this tree army to defeat them with homemade Pulaski axes and Biltmore sticks, the tools of conventional forestry roughly a century ago.
Bader describes what he does as “natural resources counter-insurgency.” It’s an unfamiliar discipline even to many counter-insurgency (or COIN) experts. But it’s one that is likely to get greater attention—and ratchet up the challenge for environmental managers—in a world where wars increasingly turn on environmental factors. Unlike conventional civilian development projects, the counterinsurgency focus puts the emphasis on results that are, if not immediate, at least pretty damn quick. “Nothing that I do is development, and nothing that my colleagues do is development,” says Bader, who works for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “We have a very limited view. What we do is nonlethal COIN in order to, in effect, be a force multiplier for lethal COIN.” He also readily admits that “this is not the solution in the long term.” It’s just a way of buying time. What’s really needed to restore stability in Afghanistan is long-term nation building—a commitment by world governments and the Afghan people to rebuild the civic and natural infrastructure, including reforestation, watershed restoration and agricultural development. But for now, Bader is using his forestry training “to defeat insurgencies long enough that these other things” can happen.
The tree army was originally the brainchild of an Army civil affairs officer, Maj. Clint Hanna, and a senior State Department advisor, Dante Paradiso, Yale College Class of 1992, both working with Col. Randy George, then-commander of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Mountain Warrior. What they had in mind was something like the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, deployed at hyperspeed. They brought in Bader as part of a joint military-civilian “natural resources counterinsurgency cell” and launched the tree army in May, with a five-week training program for a core group of 13 local forest supervisors, mostly graduates of Nangarhar University in Jalalabad.
In the field, despite these American antecedents (and about $2 million in American funding), the tree army will be entirely an Afghan operation. The 13 supervisors are now passing on their knowledge to 50 newly hired foremen, who will in turn recruit 250 workers this fall in mountain villages around Nangarhar province. If the Afghan tree army succeeds during the initial rollout, then Zorghun Afghanistan (Green Afghanistan, as it is known locally) could go nationwide. But no one is defining success according to the slow timetable of conventional forestry. Instead, says Clint Douglas, a Department of Defense consultant who is part of the Jalalabad counterinsurgency cell, the aim is to have a “significant impact” on the next fighting season, beginning in the spring, with tree armies in four northeastern provinces. (In addition to Nangarhar, they are Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman, where, by Bader’s count, five separate insurgencies now operate.) The basic tactic is to “dry up the well,” says Douglas, by employing the same young men of military age who would otherwise be most heavily recruited by the insurgents.
Status counts for everything in the mountain villages and, thus, also in the tree army. Discrimination by both gender and birth rank are the basic terms of doing business. “This program is limited to first, second and third sons, because these are the ones that the Taliban is after,” says Bader, because they’re the ones that the Taliban recruits as leaders. Conventional development programs are content “putting idle young men to work to keep them from becoming insurgents. But “those fifth, sixth and seventh sons” are bottom-of-the ladder foot soldiers, the $10-a-day Taliban. That’s not who we’re targeting, because that’s not the group of people who are going to switch a village to the government. It’s the first, second and sometimes third sons who have prominence, ability and respect.” They have the potential to become what Afghans call “the social man,” with the tree army giving them a way to earn that status “in a nonlethal manner” and by providing a service with high local value—forest and range management in the upper watershed, including construction of stacked-stone check dams, terraces and other forms of erosion control. “Everything will be built with natural materials on-site so that these villages can maintain them,” says Bader. Flying in cement or steel by helicopter doesn’t work because the villagers get no sense of ownership. Modern forestry tools are also out, says Bader, “because if one of our young men is walking around with something that’s optical, or electrical, or has batteries or a GPS, they’re going to get killed by the Taliban, because that’s all material that can be used in IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices. “So we had to rethink the curriculum. I have many books on my desk right now from Gifford Pinchot and others on how to do management and build using 1900’s technologies. Instead of a wedge prism (for establishing fixed-radius plots in the field), we’re using a small washer at the end of a string. We’re using a modified Islamic Pashto Biltmore stick. Nothing we do is pretty, but it’s practical. It’s Gifford Pinchot’s forestry, pure and simple.”
In a war zone where not much else seems to work, can a tree army with such rudimentary equipment actually make a difference? Bader says the tree army has already earned sufficient prestige that even college graduates—almost always elder sons—are now vying for positions at $12 a day, though conventional development efforts often have trouble getting people to sign on at far higher wages. Then he recounts an incident this June, late in the training of the first group of supervisors, when they were discussing where to focus the tree army’s first public project. “They unanimously stated that it had to occur in this one area under one particular tribe that had lately taken a major risk by entering into an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. military. “Somebody stood up and said, ‘I hate this tribe. If they came to my area I would probably want to kill them. However, if the insurgency is to be defeated, this tribe must be the first to benefit.’ That was the eureka moment, about creating that social man, the person who can rise above his tribe and see the larger picture.”
But it is, of course, too soon to know if whole villages will follow.
Natural resources counterinsurgency turns out to be very much a Harry Bader concept. None of the counterinsurgency experts interviewed for this story, including some at the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counter-insurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., had ever heard the term. But Bader says “it’s been around for a while, any time you look at blood diamonds or conflict timber, or any time you discuss ecocide as a war tactic.” (The term ecocide was coined by Yale botanist Arthur Galston during the Vietnam War to describe American use of defoliants to destroy 20,000 square kilometers of forest regarded as shelter for the Vietcong.) “It’s been around,” says Bader, “since Rome salted Carthage, or Sherman marched through Georgia.”
For Bader, now 48, going back and forth between more conventional environmental work and counterinsurgency has been the pattern throughout his career. He went to El Salvador during the civil war there in the mid-1980s on a USAID project looking at land reform as a means of reducing support for the guerilla movement. In the early 1990s, he worked in Bosnia for the United Nations, using spectral imaging and other techniques to locate mass graves beneath the forest canopy. He has also served as a consultant on marshland restoration in Iraq.
Bader grew up on a farm in Iowa and earned a combined undergraduate degree in forestry and political science at Washington State University. After getting a law degree at Harvard, he became a tenured professor at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) School of Natural Resources. Later, he managed 40 million acres of public land for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. One of his responsibilities there was to develop a new methodology for determining when the tundra was frozen hard enough that heavy oil industry equipment could cross it without doing damage. The tundra methodology was to be the topic of Bader’s doctoral dissertation when he came to F&ES in 1999 “to bone up on science,” according to his thesis advisor, Timothy Gregoire, Ph.D. ’85, J.P. Weyerhaeuser Jr. Professor of Forest Management. Bader completed his course work, but then counterinsurgency work interrupted his doctoral program. “He gets himself into these interesting arrangements and figures he’s doing good for humanity,” says Gregoire, who wonders if Bader really needs to add the formality of a Ph.D. to his law degree. “He’s gotten the scientific training he wanted.” (Bader calls Gregoire “patient and saintly” and resolves that he “will return to New Haven and make massive progress on my dissertation.” But first, characteristically, he plans to go to Jalalabad in January for another six-month tour.)
If the idea of resource managers as counterinsurgents is unorthodox, what Bader is doing nonetheless fits comfortably into the larger field of environmental security. The importance of natural resources in modern warfare became a hot topic in the late 1990s largely because of the role of “blood diamonds” in funding rebel movements in Angola and Sierra Leone. Diamonds and “conflict timber” also contributed to Liberia’s second civil war, and in 2003 the United Nations Security Council embargoed Liberian trade in both items. Minerals and illegal logging continue to fuel the bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That other natural resource—oil—was, of course, also a critical factor in both Iraq wars.
Beyond the intensifying competition for resources, environmental security theorists have also paid increasing attention to environmental stress as a cause of conflict. Though the Rwandan civil war was widely depicted as ethnic in origin, for instance, researchers have argued that it was more accurately a result of deforestation, erosion and reduced agricultural production. More recently, environmental stress has contributed to conflicts in Somalia, Darfur, Chiapas (Mexico) and Borneo.
In truth, both types of environmental factors have probably been motives for war as long as warfare itself has existed. On the side of resource grabbing, researchers have tied the expansion of the Akkadian empire in ancient Iraq 4,500 years ago to the quest for timber, copper and other resources. On the environmental stress side, a recent study in Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal compared changing climate cycles with records of 899 local wars in China between 1000 and 1911 and found “a near perfect match between high war frequencies” and cold phases when reduced agricultural production put pressure on underfed populations.
But it’s worse now, environmental security specialists argue, on multiple counts: Environmental stress is more widespread than at any time in human history because of global deforestation and the destruction of vital watersheds. Growing human populations have pushed many Third World regions beyond the limits of local agricultural production. Climate change appears to be causing more extreme weather events, like the drought that devastated Russia’s wheat crop this year and the deluge in Pakistan. Finally, the Cold War rivalries that once put an ideological gloss on local conflicts are long gone. Back then, insurgents could generally count on one side or the other to subsidize their cause. Now, they often turn instead to illegal trade in natural resources—from strategic minerals to endangered wildlife.
In his 2001 book, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, security studies specialist Michael Klare predicted “the emergence of a new geography of war” in which “resource concentrations rather than political boundaries are the major defining features” driving the use of military power. Military analysts now also frequently invoke the potentially greater threat of ecological collapse.
“Environmental stress will play a pervasive role in future conflicts,” writes Amy Krakowka, a geographer for the United States Military Academy at West Point, “because the economic well-being of about one-half of the world’s population is tied directly to the land, thus making agricultural space, water, fuel and forested space critical environmental indicators, especially considering anticipated population growth and projected climate change.”
These developments can put resource managers literally on the front lines, which is exactly where they belong, according to some observers. Writing recently in the Journal of Forestry, two longtime USAID consultants issued a “call to action” for foresters and watershed managers to work in Afghanistan, using natural resource projects “to battle poverty and provide an attractive alternative to the destruction, deprivation and oppression” caused by anti-governmental elements. Co-author John Groninger, Yale College Class of 1987, now a forestry professor at Southern Illinois University, is, in effect, part of the second wave behind Harry Bader’s natural resources counterinsurgency. He does conventional development in somewhat more stable parts of northeastern Afghanistan, though still strictly under U.S. military escort. (He and Bader also frequently compare notes.)
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.
But the upper conifer forest—at an elevation of 2,000 to 3,300 meters—remains remarkably intact, in Bader’s analysis. Areas that other agencies had identified from satellite photographs as large clear-cuts turned out, when Bader examined stumps and drift patterns by helicopter, to be salvage cuts in the aftermath of forest fire (though such fires sometimes get set as a result of conflicts among timber contractors). In Kunar Province, where a 2009 USAID study reported that 65 percent of the conifer forest had already been permanently destroyed, Bader’s transects and photogrammetric analysis found that the conifer forest was largely intact—1,600 square kilometers of it, not the 189 previously reported. Those earlier reports often turned out to be based on little or no data, with no description of scientific methodology, or they had been analyzed by people without the necessary training. (“It happened a lot in Afghanistan,” a member of the counterinsurgency cell confides. “One nongovernmental organization or one government agency would opine on something and then it would be a fact, and there would be a series of contracts written off that and actions taken based on inaccurate data.”)
The counterinsurgency cell published its own 30-page report at the end of July. It warned of potential long-term deterioration as a result of moderate overharvesting, use of misguided reforestation techniques and high-grading of the best trees, particularly deodar cedar. But overall, it said the conifer forest was being managed with a “relatively sophisticated approach to logging,” based on group selection cuts averaging under half a hectare. “Thus, we need not expend resources protecting the conifer forest,” the reported concluded, “but rather, we can use the conifer forest as an asset to help in formulating a COIN strategy.”
The report also found that the connection to the insurgency was far more nuanced than generally believed. It detailed where the money goes in complicated networks that include landowners; village workers; logging crews; contractors who hire the crews, provide chainsaws and sell the timber; smugglers who transport the timber across the border, typically by donkey; accountants; wood depot managers; and security teams. Insurgent groups are “not the principal architects of the illegal timber trade,” the report argued, though they often benefit as landowners or contractors. More typically, local warlords dominate the trade, with the help of corrupt government officials.
The Taliban insurgents must move around too much to control the smuggling, according to the counterinsurgency team, and they can get bigger payoffs elsewhere—for instance, by skimming security money from a highway contract. Leaving the timber trade largely alone is also strategic, according to the report: “Any intrusion into this trade by the Taliban would undermine the economic interests of tribal members, creating unnecessary friction between the Taliban and locals. Noninterference in legitimate business is a cornerstone of the Taliban’s political ideology, and their local commanders are expected to adhere to it. This effectively aligns the Taliban’s political goals with the economic needs” of the people. Though the report does not put it this plainly, it suggests that the bottom line for counterinsurgency is to deny the Taliban that opportunity by doing essentially the same thing: attempts by U.S. or Afghan forces to stop the timber smuggling merely consolidate existing networks against the government. It’s also largely wasted effort: research determined that, except in two valleys, “the timber trade is not necessarily a significant financial asset benefiting the insurgency,” says Bader. “So that’s a huge tactical advantage to now have. Because when I first arrived, there were platoons who were actively engaged in interdiction and thereby creating insurgents where there were perhaps none before. We know that interdiction alienates us from the population.” A smarter approach, with a better chance of turning the turbulent northeastern provinces back to their own national government, is to tolerate the illegal timber trade—and use the tree army to put it on a more sustainable basis.
For Bader and other environmental security experts, there’s also a larger bottom line: When nations lose essential natural resources—forests, healthy watersheds, clean water, productive farms—it ultimately becomes impossible to maintain security. But once those resources are lost, security is the first thing needed to do the hard work of getting them back. “Forestry is an outgrowth of a stable society,” says Groninger, “and if you don’t have stability, you can’t have foresters out there to protect or maintain the resource.” Ideally, world leaders and resource managers would work together to identify the threat of environmental insecurity in time to prevent societies from collapsing into chaos. But it almost never happens that way. The default is for resource managers to do what they can in the aftermath of calamity—and that often means trying to rebuild nations in close collaboration with military authorities trying to enforce the peace.
Some academics—particularly an older generation reared in the Vietnam-era atmosphere of mistrust for all things military—might find that kind of collaboration disturbing or a threat to scholarly independence. But Bader argues that integrating natural resources projects with military operations can work to the advantage of both. “If I were doing this out of whole cloth, I would have been a miserable failure,” he says. “I was deliberately embedded in the S-9 shop (the Army’s civil affairs unit) to do this mission because they were already well-ensconced within local communities. That’s their job.”
The military had a hypothesis—that the insurgents controlled the illegal timber trade—but Bader says they also gave him complete intellectual freedom to investigate it. “We tested our hypothesis and we threw away the information that failed to withstand the test, and that’s why we ended up being almost 180 degrees opposite from our original hypothesis. The only thing I heard from the military was ‘hurry up, hurry up,’ because they wanted it at the onset of the fighting season. The military is an incredibly quick study, and they are thirsty for the truth because it allows them to understand what’s happening in their area of operation.”
Within the natural resources counter-insurgency cell, Bader says, getting at that truth was a daily “tug-of-war on how to interpret what was happening, how to interpret each piece of information and how to interpret when an idea has been proven wrong.” The people doing the arguing came from multiple agencies and backgrounds—a former U.S. Army sniper and a State Department natural resources economist, an Army civil affairs officer and a USDA hydrologist, “and we would have knock-down drag-out fights in our office. We had this isolated office away from everybody, because we were somewhat secretive. But sometimes people in the other offices, military people, complained about the level of angry debate that was emanating from our office, because we really took it seriously and everybody had their point of view.” It is, he reflects, “an irony” that “in this office of a tactical operations center of a combat brigade,” in the chaos of an ugly and violent war zone, he had what was “probably the best academic experience of my life.
Harry Bader, Dante Paradiso and Col. Randy George were panelists at the symposium, “Conflict and Natural Resources: Integrated Civilian-Military Perspectives and Approaches,” on November 1 in Bowers Auditorium.