Afghan surge takes a fruitful twist
ASADABAD, Afghanistan - The slight Californian agronomist who traded in his dreadlocks for a beard before leaving for his first deployment in a military zone is often mistaken by American soldiers he works around as a "terp" - short for interpreter. He wryly notes that "terp" in the local Pashtu language also means radish, a vegetable that grows well here in eastern Afghanistan.
"Only once have I been mistaken for a US Special Forces fighter," joked Pedro Torrez, 35, who is one in a small but expanding army of experts that the Barack Obama administration hopes can help defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliated jihadi groups.
Torrez (pictured at right) and other experts like him represent the "soft power", also known as "smart power", that the administration believes can alter the outlooks of young Afghans who join forces with hardcore insurgents. It is a strategy that defies the tried and futile logic of what the George W Bush administration set out to do here in 2001: eradicate one "bad guy" at a time in a zero-sum game still glorified on a T-shirt sold on American bases here that reads "The Taliban Hunt Club".
More likely to undermine the insurgents than the thousands of fresh US troops on their way to Afghanistan are experts like Torrez, say diplomats and soldiers. Torrez's best weapons? Eggplants, walnuts, pomegranates, grapes and - not to be overlooked - beehives and radishes.
Torrez, who has also shared his expertise with American Indian tribes in California, believes that poor Afghan villagers are the key to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
"I think it shows a positive evolution when the Pentagon recognizes that helping people grow more food is an answer to settling military action," said Torrez, who advises Afghan farmers and implements irrigation and erosion-control projects.
Counter-insurgency, the US military has learned the hard way, has more to do with separating the broader population from the enemy than killing insurgents one at a time. As chairmen Mao Zedong knew in China, guerrillas "swim like fish in the sea of the people". Dry up the sea, and a guerrilla movement will wither. This can be accomplished - in no easy manner - by giving young Afghans better and more exciting opportunities than those on offer from the Taliban and its al-Qaeda military advisors.
The Obama administration has ordered a "surge" of civilian experts into Afghanistan, providing no specific numbers but suggesting the number will be in the "hundreds". Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed the initiative on Tuesday as nations gathered at The Hague Afghan conference, saying that diplomacy and military action must be packaged with civilian development.
Whether Washington's cumbersome, security-conscious bureaucracy can actually make its new strategy work is another matter. Experts of all stripes have been in demand for several years here to fight poverty and create more support for the local government.
Deteriorating security - gun battles, roadside bombs and kidnappings - has prevented most development workers from even setting foot in Pashtun-dominated provinces of Afghanistan, particularly along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. No Western aid workers are to be found in Kunar or neighboring Nuristan, apart from a handful of US government development and agricultural experts living on US military bases. All of them work under harsh security restraints and rarely make it to the remotest regions.
A senior US State Department official here, Dereck Hogan, said that Torrez and experts like him in economic development and good governance were the keys to an American exit strategy. Indeed, the resurgence of the Taliban has created alarm among Afghan officials this spring.
"This is a hard time for us because small-scale development assistance has slowed to a trickle, but it is a good time for the Taliban because they have signed ‘peace deals' in Pakistan," said Kunar governor Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi in an interview.
American officials insist they are aware of hold-ups in foreign assistance as well as the Taliban's expected offensive.
"We've seen the amount of fighting and the number of insurgents infiltrating from Pakistan rise significantly here in the east," said Hogan, who recently signed on as a special assistant to Afghanistan and Pakistan's special envoy Richard Holbrooke.
The administration's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, unveiled last week, makes it clear that the Obama administration is ready to move forward with what Hogan described in detail as a new "village-by-village" approach to counter-insurgency. On the one hand, thousands of "maneuver forces" are being brought into Afghanistan's Pashtun regions in the east and south of the country to hold the line at the border, he said.
"Forces like the 10th Mountain Division are part of a major push to stem the infiltration of insurgents from Pakistan," said Hogan. "Their work is creating space for our big push for economic development from experts like Mr Torrez."
Nearly a dozen Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan are already attempting to appeal to Afghans who would fight the Americans for economic reasons. In Kunar province alone, which has less than 500,000 residents, the US government is trying to spend over US$100 million on development assistance this year, but much of that money is taken up by large infrastructure projects that do not focus on village or agricultural development. Half the districts in the province are virtually off-limits to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-run Provincial Reconstruction Team.
"We have got to make the shift now. We are trying to integrate teams of outside experts into Afghan community teams to work in remote districts," said Hogan, acknowledging that the effort would not be easy.
In the late 1960s, the United States initiated a similar, military-coordinated development effort in South Vietnam, but the effort eventually failed when fighting intensified and US public support dwindled. Western military powers have a poor record of trying and failing to implement rural development schemes in the Third World.
"Our fundamental goal should be to convince locals to resist the insurgents - village by village, valley by valley," said Hogan. "In that regard, Afghanistan is nothing like Iraq."
Torrez, a cigar-smoking Puerto Rican-Columbian and the son of a Vietnam veteran, has always viewed life as an adventure. It comes as no surprise to his friends at an American military base here that he plans to ride a motorbike from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet, during his first 10 days of work leave. But he is already frustrated by some of the financial and security obstacles he faces in his first month of work in Afghanistan.
"Right now, I'm still looking at Afghan fruit markets through the three-inch thick, bullet-proof glass of a US Humvee," said Torrez, who is writing an agrarian plan of action for Kunar province and has plans to link up with rough-and-ready platoons of 10th Mountain Division fighters to get out to some of Afghanistan's remotest districts. "The US government's current priorities are still roads and bridges, not smaller-scale development."
The expert "soil conservationist" already knew a bit about how Afghan gardens grow - even before he arrived this year. He owns a 10-hectare (25-acre) farm in Aguanga, a small town in Southern Riverside County, California, in the mountains between Palm Springs and San Diego. His farm sits at almost the same latitude and altitude - about 1,100 meters - as many of the farms here in the tiny province of Kunar. While working as a soil conservationist for the US Department of Agriculture, he also grows apples, grapes, tomatoes, squash and melons and dabbles in the honey bee business, poultry and goats.
Torrez wants to help Afghans jump-start an age-old dried fruit business. "In the 1930s, Afghanistan was one of the world's biggest exporters of dried apricots and it has the potential to recover some of this market, but much of the expertise has been lost in the years of conflict," he said.
The staple crop in eastern Afghanistan is wheat, which grows on terraced mountainsides.
"Like California, this is semi-arid land, but there are diverse micro-climates within an hour's walk due to extreme changes in elevation," said Torrez. "That means you can grow oranges in the valley but have to switch to apples when you get higher up."
Torrez wants to encourage local Afghan farmers to grow a diverse set of crops, including nuts, fruits and wheat.
"It is not that there is a lack of food here, but what we are seeing is better described as malnutrition because diets are not always as diverse as they should be."
Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004). He is currently writing My Brother, My Enemy, a book about America and the battle of ideas in the Islamic world.