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ADAPT: Training for Agriculture’s Seminal Role in Stability Operations for Afghanistan and Beyond

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ADAPT: Training for Agriculture’s Seminal Role in Stability Operations for Afghanistan and Beyond

John W. Groninger, Charles M. Ruffner, Ryan Brewster, and Paul D. Sommers


Agriculture is critical to the day-to-day life of most Afghans and to the economic growth needed for securing Afghanistan’s future.  Agriculture Development for Afghanistan Pre-deployment Training (ADAPT) was developed and led by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) through a consortium of Universities, government agencies, and individuals having “in-country” experience working with and enhancing the agricultural sector of Afghanistan over the last 12 years of the conflict. 

ADAPT was based on the premise that agriculture development can be used as a conflict mitigation tool.  The primary objectives for trainees were to: a. raise the general awareness of agriculture-related issues critical to Afghans and to in-theatre U.S. personnel, b. learn about knowledge- based agricultural interventions, c. provide exposure and guide deployed personnel to key reach- back resources for agricultural knowledge and support, both in Afghanistan and the U.S.  The week-long trainings were largely conducted at sites on or near California State University farms to facilitate student exposure to a diverse range of agriculture developments within an agricultural landscape similar to those found in rural Afghanistan. The target audience ranged from military units such as the National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams (ADT), Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), and Special Operations Forces to civilian counterparts such as USDA, US Agency for International Development (USAID), US Department of State Field Representatives and Regional Command staff.  Modes of instruction included classroom and field exercises addressing US whole of government agriculture strategy, food security, water and land-use rights, agricultural education and training opportunities, soil and water conservation, livestock health assessment and grazing, apiculture, crop production management, post harvest handling and marketing.  ADAPT sets the foundation for integrating civilian/military efforts into the future of international development within insecure or conflict-prone areas of operation.


In Afghanistan, and across much of the developing world, agriculture is the primary enterprise and key to local food security, as well as national and regional political stability.  Roughly 80 percent of Afghans rely on agriculture to provide income and food for their families.  This is even more significant in rural landscapes where Afghans’ daily lives revolve around agriculture such as grain cropping, fruit and nut production, wood extraction and livestock grazing.  Depending on alliances, rural communities may provide logistical, economic, material or personnel support to insurgents.  In these areas, agriculture and natural resources issues may provide international security forces and development agencies an entry point for positive engagement and capacity building between local nationals, provincial ministries, and coalition forces.  Conversely, failure to understand how agriculture functions and how outsiders may inadvertently disrupt or damage agricultural livelihoods may alienate military forces and other outsiders from otherwise cooperative communities.  Since the initiation of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) and National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams (ADT) in 2006-7, the United States Government (USG) has been trying to integrate lessons learned across multiple efforts.  As a result, the current training program known as Agricultural Development for Afghanistan Pre-deployment Training (ADAPT) was coordinated and funded by the USDA. 

Conflict since the late 1970’s has left Afghan farmers less competent and secure, due in part to an interruption of traditional interfamilial knowledge transfer.  In some cases, community leaders, educators and managers were killed in conflicts before information was transferred to younger generations.  In other cases, present-day farmers became refugees or were displaced to cities as children, preventing them from learning farming by working at the side of older family members.  Additionally, there are instances where farm knowledge was transferred, but in a refugee setting, typically in Pakistan or Iran where agricultural resources and conditions differ from those now encountered in Afghanistan.  This has left some Afghan farmers ill-adapted to farm under their present circumstances.  Left un-remedied, a lack of pertinent agricultural knowledge can foster instability as poor yields may induce farmers to participate in the insurgency as a means of family support in the face of food insecurity.

During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OEF), coalition forces working in rural areas found themselves either directly or indirectly in contact with agricultural issues.  Many stabilization efforts were undermined or lost by a failure to recognize social protocols pertaining to agriculture.  For example, combat commanders planned activities that disrupted crop production cycles and imperiled family food security. Maneuvers that were not mindful of herd behavior angered herders who might have otherwise provided valuable intelligence across the vast swaths of insurgent impacted landscapes they occupy. Vehicle operators and dismounted patrols who unnecessarily destroyed crops by failing to recognize or yield to crop fields also contributed to increased tension.  Typically, understanding agricultural systems and rural Afghan society was a long, slow learning process when compared to the typical year-long deployment of US personnel.  Little guidance was available as preceding units had short overlaps and training on rural issues was sparse to non-existent.  Interpreters were the only personnel providing continuity but were typically from urban backgrounds and seldom understood agricultural issues.  Even U.S. personnel with agricultural backgrounds often found their own experiences were useless when confronting Afghan agricultural techniques and challenges.  OEF personnel who possess some level of agricultural knowledge and problem solving techniques at the farmer level provide a potential entry point into the local villages. Afghan-specific agricultural insights provided by these personnel can help rural Afghans recognize their own lack of critical knowledge and spur a desire to solve local problems.  Providing farmers with information they perceive as useful, particularly income generating programs, builds trust and opens the way for further cooperation.  At a minimum, a better understanding of local agricultural systems can prevent an inadvertent disruption of rural livelihoods that may also damage critical relationships.

We outline approaches for integrating agriculture development principles and practices into OEF through a USDA-Funded training program entitled Agriculture Development for Afghanistan Pre-deployment Training (ADAPT).  Key features of this training program enable civilian and military personnel to reach out to rural Afghan communities to achieve short-term military objectives and also serve as a starting point to further agricultural development and institution building.  Implications for post-OEF application of this model are discussed.


ADAPT was coordinated, led and funded by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and implemented by a  consortium of Universities with demonstrated expertise in Afghan or Afghan-related agriculture; California State University Fresno, California State Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo, Colorado State University, and Southern Illinois University.  The curriculum was developed collaboratively with military, civilian agency, and academic personnel.  Training was offered monthly or bi-monthly from November 2011 through September 2013 at locations near two campuses of the California State University system.   Small Afghan-type farms were constructed with cropping systems, stock, and irrigation systems similar to Afghan subsistence farms.  Additional field sites were selected to provide similarity to non-arable Afghan agricultural watersheds. 

Initially, the goal of ADAPT was to instill an understanding of proven methods for promoting local leadership, ensuring innovation adaptation and developing collaborative relationships among agrarian communities and Afghan government agricultural officials.  As the timing of the program began to coincide with the transition toward the U.S. withdrawal, training re-focused on knowledge transfer and local-level capacity building.   The curriculum was presented over a five day- 40 hour period divided between classroom and field instruction in foundational and technical agriculture and related policies and practices within an Afghan context (Table 1).  Trainers consisted of agricultural experts with recent Afghanistan, relevant US or other international development, experience.  In some instances, trainees with complementary small farm backgrounds in the U.S. or through experience from previous deployments supplemented formal instruction.  Several Afghans studying agriculture or related topics in the U. S. also served as instructors.

Table 1.  ADAPT curriculum components including key topic areas, setting, and instructor’s context.

ADAPT trainees numbered 800 over the life of the program and represented a spectrum of civilian and military personnel, with a plurality consisting of U.S. Army civil affairs personnel preparing for village stability operations (Table 2).  Participants’ experience level in agriculture ranged from none to career practitioners and agriculture service professions. 

Table 2.  Representative personnel classifications of ADAPT training participants and primary program takeaways.

An overarching theme was to appreciate the multifaceted importance of agriculture to rural Afghans.  Thus, instructors frequently stressed the importance of food security as a primary concern in many communities.  Opium production was placed in the context of necessary agricultural livelihoods and community dynamics. Similarly, the role of livestock was presented as transcending pure economics.  In all cases, information was vetted on the basis of its potential to shorten in-country learning periods commonly reported by most agriculture team members on their first deployment to Afghanistan.  Time and seasonality is especially critical within the context of the full year/solar cropping cycle that drives most agricultural activities.    Therefore, mission planners were urged to coordinate operations with knowledge of cropping systems and how disruption of farmer activities during critical times might imperil farm families and doom prospects for local cooperation.  Unit planners were urged to align agriculture-related activities to coincide with deployment timing within the crop calendar.  

U.S. personnel often engage communities through an assessment of present conditions and needs.  ADAPT familiarizes trainees with agricultural norms and how these differ from their pre-conceived expectations.   Appropriate interventions are suggested and cautionary anecdotes are offered regarding the consequences of misinterpreting community requests.  Presenters emphasize second and third order effects of inappropriate development programs and common strategies employed by individuals and groups in Afghanistan who use agricultural interventions to fuel corruption.

Agriculture development and the prospect for “quick wins” are particularly relevant to Afghans whose lack of critical farming skills threaten food insecurity.   Within this context, village stability operations conducted by Special Operations Forces can benefit from quickly establishing rapport with villages whose livelihood depends on agriculture and natural resource management.  For example, the introduction of simple erosion control practices that visibly improve water quality have lasting benefits but also serve more immediate needs to increase community cooperation with military units.   The curriculum also stresses the interconnectivity between watershed, water supply, crop production, and economic stability that is not fully appreciated by most rural Afghans.

Equally powerful is “what not to do”, sometimes based on apparently small but costly tactical mistakes and experiences.  These include inadvertent damage to irrigation systems and crops by vehicle operators, avoiding the public humiliation of being kicked or butted by improperly approaching livestock, preventing flock scattering or stampedes, and rural sanitation issues resulting from improper animal handling.

ADAPT provided trainees guidance on US policy and institutional roles as these related to agriculture.  This was particularly pertinent where multiple US government agencies (notably USAID, USDA, ADTs, PRTs and CA teams) were addressing the same agricultural issues in the same location.  ADAPT recruited trainers from across the spectrum of contributing civilian and military institutions to describe their respective roles within OEF.  Cases were presented to demonstrate how U.S. institutions coordinated agricultural efforts as well as the consequences of failing to do so.  In this respect, ADAPT used agriculture to provide a unique introduction to the “whole of government” approach that has attained unprecedented prominence within OEF.

The information sharing capability of internet systems on most military bases makes available specialized agricultural expertise to otherwise remote locations.  ADAPT supported information sharing networks at several levels.  eAfghanAg (, a website focused on providing the most pertinent agriculture information, has been developed by the University of California Davis in coordination with ADAPT.  A related program provides access to experts in the United States to answer questions emerging down range.  ADAPT participants were acquainted with the content and function of eAfghanAg during the first day of the training.  References for further information were provided throughout the presentations and experts were identified within the training cohorts to promote ongoing communications among trainees during deployment.  Social interaction time was built into the training where instructors, Afghan subject matter experts, and trainees expanded discussions beyond classroom and field demonstrations.  These activities further impressed upon trainees the availability and value of agricultural information support networks.

Key Challenges

Afghanistan is tremendously diverse agro-ecologically due to vast differences in elevation and water availability.  Similarly, many different crops are produced under a wide variety of cropping and processing systems.  This variation is often represented even at the provincial level.   Trainees are seldom certain of their actual area of responsibility once deployed.  Furthermore, the variation in trainee familiarity with both Afghanistan and agriculture challenges instructors to engage all participants regardless of knowledge and experience.  Given these realities, ADAPT curriculum developers were constantly challenged to balance generalities with the specificity needed for location-specific intervention (Table 3).  While some of these lessons learned are particularly salient to the OEF experience, similar efforts in the future are likely to face similar obstacles. 

Table 3.  Challenges encountered by ADAPT developers.


ADAPT as a program concluded with the Afghanistan drawdown.  As the U.S. security emphasis shifted from Afghanistan to other politically unstable agricultural regions, instructors informally sought ways to take a broad view of the ADAPT curriculum in order to address emergent militarily insecure areas of interest.   Given the enormous regional variability encountered in Afghanistan, most ADAPT content is easily tailored to fit other agricultural areas in fragile states.  There, common problems include chronic food insecurity, limited outsider access, subsistence farming, an unreliable natural resource base, high unemployment and limited central government influence - all central themes for Afghanistan and ADAPT.  

Discussions with USG civilian, military and development agencies focused on insecure areas have affirmed the value of harmonizing agriculture with military operations.    Anecdotal evidence of ADAPT activities building community trust and capacity found their way back to program organizers.  Now that ADAPT alumni have completed tours and some have moved into new theatres, a logical next step would be to formally translate lessons learned into rapidly deployed and scalable programs to help civilian and military personnel respond to agricultural and security problems, wherever these may coincide.

About the Author(s)

John Groninger holds a Ph.D. in Silviculture/Physiological Ecology from Virginia Tech (1995), is Professor of Forestry, specializing in Forest Regeneration, Agroforestry, and Urban Forestry, and serves as Director of International Agriculture at Southern Illinois University.  He served several TDY’s in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2011, primarily in support of watershed rehabilitation and management projects and as coordinator of natural resource management for the Afghanistan Water Agriculture and Technology Transfer project.  He was an instructor for the Agriculture Development for Afghanistan Pre-deployment Training program focusing on Rural Land Use Issues, Practices, and Institutions.

Charles Ruffner received his Ph.D. in old-growth forest ecology from Pennsylvania State University in 1999 and currently serves as Professor of Forestry at Southern Illinois University where he teaches courses in Forest Measurements, Fire Management,  and International Agriculture.  During his last year of sabbatical leave, he served in Zabul Province, Afghanistan with the Mississippi National Guard's Agribusiness Development Team as Hydrologist and Watershed Planner. Before this deployment he served as instructor for the Agriculture Development for Afghanistan Pre-deployment Training program focusing on Rural Land Use Issues and Soil Conservation and Erosion Control Measures.  Previous overseas experience was gained as Field Forester on a USAID funded program in Afghanistan from 2008-2011 and during his service as a Field Artillery Surveyor in the US Army from 1986-1994.

Ryan Brewster is Afghanistan Desk Officer for the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

Paul Sommers is an international agriculture development expert and served as ADAPT Project Manager at California State University, Fresno.


I don't know how many counterinsurgency advisors or operatives from Vietnam or other conflicts read this article, but as an advisor from Vietnam,it is particularly frustrating (as many current commentaries are) because it is so correct and sooo well known by anyone who has been paying attention for the last thirty years! Virtually all of the author's comments about what to do and not to do could have come from the Vietnam experience. An American approaching a water buffalo was sure to cause major trouble. An American truck, jeep, or tank driver deciding unnecessarily to cross a field or paddy without concern for the crops would do so with not thought to what that meant to a subsistence farmer barely surviving on his little spot of land. Big American boats cruising down a canal put up a wake that would overturn the little family sampans. So many little things that the big, bulky Americans would do that turned the locals off. I was a farm boy familiar with cattle, hogs, chickens, and the like. While I was not on Vietnam as an agricultural specialist (I was an infantry guy advising village forces on small unit tactics) the fact that I knew the ground rules and understood a village farmers needs and life gave me a leg up. It is only with slight humor that I've often thought that "farm boy" ought to be a check-off point when selecting counterinsurgency personnel for rural areas.