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Cultivating Afghanistan: Indiana farmer/soldiers share their expertise

An Indiana National Guard team that is training Afghans in effective farming techniques prepared for its tour of duty with instruction in the language and culture of Afghanistan at Indiana University.

Stories about the Indiana 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team are being shared with home-state audiences, thanks to IU public radio station WFIU. A writer who is embedded with the team is producing features for a WFIU series titled "Cultivating Afghanistan."

Cultivating Afghanistan

Photo courtesy of ADT/WFIU

First Lt. Melissa Gutzweiler of the Indiana 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team, on the flight from Bagram Air Field to Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province

The 64-person team, which deployed to Afghanistan's Khost Province about three months ago, includes agricultural experts and Indiana National Guard soldiers whose job it is to protect them. Indiana is one of seven states sending agribusiness development teams to Afghanistan.

"Agriculture sustains about 60 to 70 percent of the population of the country, so we won't have true security until the economic state is better repaired," Army Maj. Shawn Gardner, operations and training officer for the 1-19th, said in a story posted on the National Guard Bureau Web site.

The guardsmen and women, including 16 Indiana National Guard members who are experts in livestock and crop farming, forestry and veterinary medicine, are working with and advising Afghan farmers in an effort to improve productivity and efficiency and provide alternatives to growing poppies for the opium trade.

After a brief course at Purdue University in issues of Afghan agriculture, the agriculture experts on the Indiana team underwent a 15-day intensive training regimen last December at IU Bloomington, learning the rudiments of the Pashto language spoken in Khost and basic cultural competencies.

The training was provided by IU's Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR), a federal Title VI Foreign Language Resource Center dedicated to promoting the teaching and learning of the languages and cultures of the key strategic region.

Indiana National Guard personnel who are supporting the agricultural experts had five days of training. CeLCAR will provide training for a second group of Indiana Agribusiness Development Team in August.

"They were wonderful," said Dave Baer, assistant director of CeLCAR. "The ones from Indiana, especially, were responsive and really valued the language and cultural training."

While a majority of Afghanistan's population depends on agriculture for its livelihood, practices are usually at a subsistence level. Only 12 percent of the country's land is arable, and just 6 percent is being used for farming. The Afghan economy has been battered by more than two decades of war.

The Indiana Agribusiness Development Team may have the tools and knowledge to help, but to be successful, its members need to communicate with Afghans in a way that is effective and culturally sensitive. The CeLCAR training provided basics of the Pashto alphabet, greetings, common sentences and the most important vocabulary words. It also got the team up to speed on issues that can trip up interactions between Westerners and Afghan Muslims, including gestures and gender issues.

"The biggest issue for success over there is whether the U.S. personnel can think of the Afghans as peers and not as second-class citizens. That's a huge issue," said Baer, who credited Col. Brian Copes, the 1-19th commander, with setting a positive example for respecting the Afghan people.

Meanwhile, reports on the team are being reported and produced for WFIU by Doug Wissing, a Bloomington-based freelance journalist who was accepted to live and work as an embedded reporter with the Indiana 1-19th. Wissing traveled to Afghanistan just over a week ago. So far, he has filed three stories: on the family team member Bob Cline, a Heltonville, Ind., cattle farmer; his own training and orientation at CeLCAR; and the arduous trip to Khost province near the Pakistan border.

WFIU Station Manager Christina Kuzmych said Wissing will produce about 15 stories during his current stay in Afghanistan, and additional stories in a second embedded tour with the 1-19th later this year. The stories can be heard online at http://www.newsmatters.org/cultivating-afghanistan/.

Sponsors of the "Cultivating Afghanistan" story project, in addition to CeLCAR, include IU's Office of the Vice President for International Affairs and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center.

More about the Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region can be seen at http://www.indiana.edu/~celcar/.