I am a retired (21 ½ years) Infantry First Sergeant (E-8) who served in the Gulf War, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan. I am an avid writer, fisherman and outdoor enthusiast. I call Kuna, Idaho home and hope to one day write professionally.
May 24 (AFP) - Lush pomegranate orchards provide perfect cover for the Taliban,
who have turned what should be the fruit basket of Afghanistan into one of the
hottest spots of the long insurgency.
In the past year the crude bombs
that are the Taliban's battlefield talisman have been responsible for the deaths
of all foreign soldiers patrolling this valley from 13 bases on each side of the
Arghandab River, the US military said.
Arghandab, 20 kilometres (12
miles) from Kandahar city, capital of the eponymous province in southern
Afghanistan that the insurgents regard as their fiefdom, is at the epicentre of
a war well into its ninth year.
The district produces half the 100,000
tonnes of pomegranates grown in Afghanistan each year, but is better known for
the harvest of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, that seem as thickly
seeded as the fruit trees.
American troopers on patrol around the
villages near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Arghandab point to culverts along
canals irrigating the orchards as favourite corners for Taliban
An explosion across the river to the east was "probably an
IED," said one.
"Someone might have stepped on it. Or it could have been
a controlled detonation," he said. "Either way, we're finding
Almost 60 percent of the more than 200 foreign troop deaths in
Afghanistan this year were caused by IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, the
independent icasualties.org website says.
In Arghandab, a village school
has become a proxy battleground between the Taliban and pro-government forces,
said US Army Sergeant Stephen Decatur, as he described last month's find of
"nine medium-to-small, 20-50 pound jugs of home-made bombs planted around the
"In January, over the course of 10 days, they found
hundreds and hundreds of pounds of explosives and IEDS," he said, adding that
some of the bombs contained up to 300 pounds (136 kilogrammes) of
"There are a lot of advantages to being in Arghandab, mainly
because there is so much agriculture -- pomegranate orchards have a lot of cover
from observation from the air and close air support."
As US and NATO
forces prepare the slow strangulation of the insurgents over the coming summer
months, Afghanistan's Western supporters are, finally, trying to address the
economic fundamentals fuelling the fight.
Poverty, unemployment at the
heart of unrest
More than 70 percent of Afghanistan's population are tied
to the land as tenant farmers or share-croppers, experts say. The CIA put
unemployment in 2008 at 35 percent and inflation last year at 30.5
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium
and the 2.8-billion-dollar-a-year illicit industry helps drugs gangs pay the
Taliban for armed muscle to protect production and distribution
With the realisation that the insurgency is largely economic
rather than ideological -- and that many Taliban foot soldiers are simply
unemployed men who need the fighting fee to feed their families -- Western
donors have started channelling their efforts to the grass roots of Afghan
In Arghandab, Washington's international aid arm USAID believes
its programme to teach Afghan farmers modern techniques for boosting quality and
yield has the flow-on benefit of improving security.
The head of the
local council of elders, Haji Mohammad agreed, telling AFP the project is
creating jobs that give the fighting-age men of the area an alternative to
picking up a gun for 20 dollars a day.
Since the introduction of USAID's
AVIPA (Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Production in Agriculture) project,
Arghandab's pomegranate yield has leapt by 75 percent, to 15-20 kilogrammes of
fruit per tree, he said.
"It has also provided jobs, people are now
earning money, so in the many villages where we have projects there is no
problem with security," Mohammad said.
"People here are poor and so they
were used by other people with bad intentions. But if they can have jobs that
earn them money from honest work, they can become independent, so in the coming
years they won't need to go fighting."
The four-month cash-for-work
project was pouring 400,000 afghanis (8,800 dollars) every month into each of
Arghandab's 72 villages, paying farm workers 300 afghanis daily, said local
AVIPA supervisor, Obeidullah, who uses one name.
The cost of building
roads and reservoirs, as well as tractors, chemicals and other equipment was
extra, he said.
The AVIPA programme is worth a total of almost 400
That money is welcomed in most farming communities of
Afghanistan -- among the poorest countries in the world -- and Arghandab is no
As Obeidullah and Mohammad extolled its benefits, local elders
relaxed on carpets nearby, drinking tea and eating apricots, nodding their
agreement but reluctant to talk or have their photographs taken for fear of
reprisals, one said, from the Taliban.
'Taliban know how to make their
Scepticism about the longevity of the international presence
that is keeping the Taliban at bay is widespread in Afghanistan.
fear that once international troops, currently numbering 130,000, withdraw,
which they regard as inevitable, the insurgents will reassert control and take
revenge on anyone who cooperated with the other side.
US officials and
soldiers said the Taliban maintain influence in Arghandab, using what one
American, speaking anonymously, described as "ruthless" intimidation
Taliban had cut off arms and hanged people suspected of
working with the coalition, and kidnapped children for ransom, he
"They know how to make their point, they're ruthless. The farmers
have a hard time, going into the fields where the Taliban put IEDs if they think
they are on patrol routes for the US, the Canadians or the Afghan army," he
"Innocent civilians are hit pretty hard. The Taliban are still a
very real threat."
Unless the AVIPA scheme and others like it -- such as
the British attempt in neighbouring Helmand province to encourage poppy growers
to switch to food crops -- are quickly followed up with marketing and storage
programmes, experts and officials said, any gains are
"There needs to be a transition from providing labouring
jobs to value-added," said Jim Green, a US agriculture department advisor in
"The improvement in crops needs to have back-up. When
people go from pruning and spraying to packing the fruit, then it becomes
sustainable on a yearly basis.
"When there's demand for a product, then
it becomes sustainable," he said, noting the popularity of pomegranates as a
super-fruit in the West.
For Haji Mohammad, sustainability depends on
"As long as coalition forces are here we will be OK," he
"When the Afghan government and the Taliban sit down and talk
there will be no fighting. For 30 years we have had fighting. We don't want any
more fighting. We want to feed ourselves and get on with our lives.
just want peace," he said. (By Lynne O'Donnell/ AFP)