x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The Afghan tree army

As Afghanistan's mountains are stripped of trees for firewood, a US initiative is forming a 'tree army' of Afghans to help counter the resulting soil erosion, teaching forestry skills to bright young men who might otherwise end up as Taliban recruits.

JALALABAD // Harry Bader arranges samples of deodar cedar and quercus oak branches on a long table as he waits for his students to arrive. The early morning sun is trapping the heat in the glass-fronted room and several fans blow furiously overhead. To cool down, Mr Bader takes off his baseball cap, embroidered with the words "Yale Forestry", a memento of his years at the prestigious American university. Mr Bader specialises in forestry - and counter-insurgency. The incongruous combination will be useful this week as the first phase of a two-year forestry programme for young Afghans was launched in Finley-Shields, a US army military base located on the site of an old Soviet rest and recreation centre in Jalalabad, where the Russians once relaxed in its serenity garden and executed Afghan prisoners in the swimming pool. Mr Bader, an expert with Usaid, the American government's international development agency, will draw up a curriculum with 12 student to teach hundreds of villagers how to protect and conserve water and the vast tracts of coniferous and deciduous forests which cover the insurgency-plagued Hindu Kush mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan.

The programme is nicknamed the tree army. "There are very few options for men of ability, ambition and social stature to do something for their communities that is productive, that gives them honour and that doesn't involve violence. And the so-called tree army is to do just that in areas that are highly desirable for recruitment by the Taliban." As he speaks, the students, all young Pashtun men in their 20s and graduates of Nangarhar University's agriculture school, who are wearing neatly pressed shalwar-kameez, file into the classroom and take their seats. Mr Bader begins by talking about the history of forestry, which was invented by the Ottomans in 1483.

"The sultan created a corps of men to protect the most important resource of the empire - the trees," he says. The students appear interested as they take notes. One wants to know about the history of forestry in Afghanistan. The school represents the American military's tactical shift from counter-terrorism, which focused on hitting back at insurgent havens, to counter-insurgency, in which protecting and helping the population is viewed as the key to winning the war.

Joe Fairchild, an instructor who helped vet the students from a pool of 100 applicants chosen by Nangarhar University, described them as a "hot commodity". "They are young, most of them are charismatic, guys anybody would want - legitimate or insurgent. For the insurgents, they would be the organisers because they have the intellect, they speak enough English but they can also blend into the population. They can learn how to make improvised explosive devices, bomb-making. They have strong personalities so they would be natural leaders."

Instead of directing insurgency operations against US forces and teaching foot soldiers from the radicalised madrasas how to build bombs, it is hoped they will teach Afghan farmers how to cut trees without destroying them and build dams and ditches to conserve water using simple tools such as ropes and stones in a part of the country that is suffering from de-forestation and soil erosion. During the morning break the students drift into small groups and chat quietly.

Hidayatullah, 23, who did not want his last name published, said it was a risk for him to attend because he travelled from violence-racked Laghman province next door. "I'm sure the Taliban would kill me if they knew I was here. It is dangerous," said Hidayatullah, the eldest of nine children. "I tell everyone I am working for a company related to agriculture. I cannot say I am working with Americans. But I came because 80 per cent of our people rely on agriculture and our forests are being cut down, destroyed. My parents want me to succeed and serve our country."

After the morning break, two officials from the ministry of agriculture give speeches and encouragement. One looks visibly moved when he picks up a deodar cedar sample. "This is the first time I have held a cedar branch. I have never seen the cedar forests in person because of the years of fighting." One of the students raises his hand. "What kind of security will the government give us when we go to the villages?" he asked.

Hamidullah Nazir, the natural resources manager for the government, said they will only work in the districts where they are welcome by residents. Timber, not poppy, drives much of the violence and insurgency in north-eastern Afghanistan. Some areas are controlled by Taliban, others by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyer, while other districts are simply lawless or in the hands of criminal networks.

Even in relatively stable Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, Mr Bader and his team commute each morning from their home in Forward Operating Base Fenty, the main military base in this part of the country, across the street to the school by helicopter. The distance is about 400 metres. The journey takes precisely two minutes. It is considered easier than travelling by land, which would involve a convoy of six armoured vehicles driving three miles across roads potentially planted with explosives.

In the face of such insecurity there is little opportunity for development. At the same time quercus oak, which burns clear and hot, provides fuel for homes and feeds the livestock of the vast majority of rural Afghans, is in danger of running out. Villagers are cutting them down, loading them on to lorries and donkeys to sell in towns. As a result of deforestation, flash floods and soil erosion are increasing.

"One thing is certain, people don't know how to deal with deforestation," said Jamal, 28, a student. "I'm from Nangarhar and we grow quercus oak, which people are cutting down without thinking. They are not being replaced. It is causing flooding and damage to crops." Cutting down trees is illegal, but villagers have no choice because they are so poor, he added. Mr Bader said if the problem is not fixed, the implications for security would be grave.

"The forest that is being damaged has the greatest implications for instability operations in terms of people being able to feed themselves." On paper it seems like a winner: the students learn practical techniques to protect the vanishing quercus oak forests and pass the knowledge on to villagers, hence preventing insurgents from taking advantage of the instability and poverty that would ensue if there was mass deforestation and water shortages. One of the techniques taught is the building of check dams, small dams made with stones or sandbags, that slow down the flow of storm water and help reduce soil erosion.

The programme started after Col Randy George, commander of 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division based at FOB Fenty, asked Clint Douglas, one of the advisers, to "investigate how to bring men down from the hills", said Mr Douglas. The two-year programme will cost US$2 million (Dh7.3m), train 643 Afghan foresters and is being paid for by the US army. It will start in Nangarhar and expand to the more violent areas of Kunar and Nuristan if security improves.

"There is an endless supply of work to do," said Mr Bader. "We can do 300 check-dams per kilometre easily. It's a 50-year, 100-year job. Once these folks have the knowledge they can tweak it to their immediate valleys to work with native stone, wood, material so we don't have to spend money slinging cement by helicopter." The precarious road to rebuilding Afghanistan is littered with wasted projects such as providing computer lessons to illiterate women in villages with no electricity.

The tree army experts say, however, that this is different because the tribes have been consulted and it meets a genuine need. Elders from four major Pashtun tribes will nominate the foresters as candidates. The 12 students in the classroom helping to draw up the curriculum and the next generation of 100 foresters they will train will be first, second or third eldest sons because they are valued by the tribes.

What if the tribes don't put the names of their sons forward? "Then we develop a different strategy," said Mr Bader. "I think it's going to work. Clearly we have a commitment to these guys and they will not be abandoned. They will have to help us come up with a different strategy." A report, published in March by the International Council on Security and Development think-tank, found that young men who are unemployed, unmarried and disenfranchised make up the majority of the insurgency's rank and file. Nearly half of the Afghan male population is between the ages of 15 and 29, providing a potentially large recruiting pool for the Taliban and other networks.

Meanwhile, the study, in which 400 Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar were interviewed, found that 95 per cent cent of those questioned believed more young Afghans had joined the Taliban in the past year. "Resilient rural communities are a strong bulwark against insurgency and this is the only programme on this scale that doesn't involve guns," said Mr Douglas. "It is small in the bigger scheme of things but, within the context of the area we're talking about, it is like taking two battalions worth of Taliban off the battlefield for two years and having them do honourable work."

The foresters will not wear uniforms or carry weapons, only a pair of strong boots, which, in Afghan rural society, is a mark of high social standing. "A man in good work boots is a man to be listened to," he added. hghafour@thenational.ae