At a university farm in California's crop-abundant Central Valley, a group of U.S. Marines trudged through muddy fields on Monday to learn how to tend pomegranate trees, a crop popular in war-torn Afghanistan where they will soon deploy.
The training at California State University, Fresno is part of the U.S. war effort, and the lessons learned could help Marines engage with wary Afghan civilians, a large majority of whom rely on farming to survive.
"We're building Afghans' capacity to make money for themselves," said 1st Lt. Karl Kadon with the Marines Civil Affairs Detachment, who participated in the training last spring and has used the information he learned in Helmand province.
The training, Kadon said, armed him with the understanding of agriculture and gave him the ability to ask questions and assist Afghan farmers with problems. It was so helpful, he said, that his 11th Marine Regiment Civil Affairs Detachment returned to Fresno State. The regiment helps military commanders by working with civil authorities and civilian populations.
During this week's training, Marines will learn first-hand and in the classroom about irrigation practices, soil salinity, plant recognition and livestock care, among other topics. Kadon helped create the training after doing intelligence work in Iraq and after working in civil affairs in Afghanistan.
Military officials chose Fresno State because of its expertise in agriculture and because crops such as almonds and pomegranates in the Central Valley are similar to those in Helmand.
"We have a similar agro-ecological area in terms of water, and the kinds of crops we grow are not grown anywhere else in the U.S.," said Dr. Charles Boyer, dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State.
The school is planning a similar training for National Guard members, he said.
Much of Afghanistan lacks processing, grain storage and other facilities vital to agribusiness, said Kadon, who was deployed in Afghanistan from August of last year until March of this year. Roads are impassable, laid with mines and damaged by bombs, he said.
After training at Fresno State last year, Kadon and his team cleared smaller roads and built new ones, as well as a floodwall, to serve farmers. They also helped the local Afghan government to start building a grain storage facility.
Supporting Afghan farmers also indirectly impacts the war on drugs in Afghanistan, Kadon said. In Helmand, a prime poppy growing region, narcotics cartels are thwarting the growth of crops, Kadon said. The Marines' goal, he said, is to help farmers grow legal agricultural produce by overcoming the lack of infrastructure and access to markets.
Engaging Afghans had its challenges, Kadon said, because farmers were afraid to talk and many fields were mined. The Marines eventually gained trust, he said, because they were not telling Afghan farmers how to farm, but rather helped assess their problems and connect them with local and international experts who could offer solutions.
The training, Kadon said, is especially important to Afghans as America's withdrawal from Afghanistan looms near.
"They all know we're leaving," Kadon said, "and we just need to help them the best we can to stand on their own two feet."