Fort Riley — They call themselves “combat farmers,” and most members of a 64-soldier team from the Kansas National Guard heading to Afghanistan have deep agricultural roots.
For the next year, the soldiers will use their farming expertise to assist Afghan farmers and ranchers trying to rebuild crop and livestock production after more than 30 years of war.
Col. Eric Peck, leader of the team, said Friday that the mission isn’t unlike what the National Guard does within Kansas after a natural disaster.
“We’re just stretching it beyond the borders of Kansas. That’s not a bad thing in a global economy,” said Peck, 52.
Similar teams from Missouri and Nebraska have gone to Afghanistan. Two more Kansas teams will follow Peck’s group over the next few years.
The Kansas unit is heading to Afghanistan near the Pakistan border as the United States makes plans to send about 17,000 more troops to increase the fight against the Taliban and insurgents.
“This has strategic implications,” Peck said.
Maj. Dirk Christian, 37, who grew up in Illinois and farms near the northeast Kansas town of Marysville, said the challenge will be letting the Afghan farmers take the lead and not doing the work for them.
“It shows that we believe in everything that the Afghan government is doing,” Christian said. “We have no preconceived notion that peace is going to break out. We want to farm.”
On Friday, the team’s members completed cultural awareness training at Fort Riley after spending the week learning basic aspects of the Afghan culture and language. Fort Riley’s 1st Infantry Division has been training teams of military advisers for 32 months that go to Afghanistan and Iraq to assist with developing the police and army.
Part of that training includes learning to conduct meetings with Arabic role players, speaking through translators to develop relationships and carry out the mission.
Lt. Col. Michael Landers, director of cultural influence and counterinsurgency for the 1st Infantry Division, said learning the ways of the Afghan people and developing trust is crucial.
“If we’re going to get this right, we’ve got to do this,” Landers said.
The Kansans are taking with them a wealth of agricultural knowledge from the faculty at Kansas State University, along with farm implements and machine tools. They also are taking about 4 tons of Kansas winter wheat, hoping that it will grow in an area that gets 8 inches of rain, but has irrigation potential from nearby rivers, streams and snowmelt.
Maj. Blaine Clowser, 46, works at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in animal sciences. He’s combining his expertise in livestock with 22 years of military service to serve as agriculture team chief.
A trick will be to develop sustainable agriculture, knowing that with conditions in the country any gain can be lost for months by mechanical breakdowns or attacks. But he also sees the benefit in helping the country become self-sufficient and bringing stability to a violent part of the world.