ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — For the past 10 years America’s military mission in Afghanistan has targeted the Taliban and terrorists. But on Friday, 22 Minnesota National Guard soldiers will begin a much different tactic. They’re being sent to the dusty fields of the high Afghan desert.

“Right here in Zabul Province, just northeast of Kandahar,” explained Col. Eric Ahlness.

Ahlness will lead the Minnesota National Guard unit with members chosen for their expertise in agribusiness. He explained that if the United States is to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, it will have to start by helping them with grow crops and jobs.

“It’s not about us there doing it for them or for us to build up what we think is right, but to work with them and help them learn what they need to do,” said Ahlness. “And to train their government and really building an extension service like we have here in the U.S.”

Ahlness’ unit is called the Agribusiness Development Team or ADT. It is a diverse group of talented professionals, drawing on veterinarians, technicians and beekeepers. He said the aviary sciences will be key to helping to revitalize the country’s once robust almond crop.

“By just doing good cross pollination with bees, that can increase a harvest as much as 40 percent,” Ahlness explains.

The unit of citizen soldiers will also include a college professor, an agronomist, even a hydrologist. Master Sergeant Jim Doten works for the city of Minneapolis in his professional life and he’s keenly aware of the country’s need for a dependable water supply.

The Zabul Province sits at between 5,000 and 14,000 feet elevation above sea level. It is high desert and arid, an agricultural setting similar to New Mexico. Doten said farmers in the Zabul Province will need constant water supplies in order to get their crops to thrive.

“It’s very seasonal when the water is there. We’re looking at ways and how to, in a sustainable manner, increase the utilization of their water through irrigation,” Doten explained.

The upcoming mission might be Minnesota’s most important agricultural export — the knowledge of how to grow food and rebuild a battered country.

“I think this is a great capstone mission in a way to bring Minnesota out here to help the people of Afghanistan,” said Doten.

On Friday, Sept. 30, the National Guard will host a deployment ceremony for the 22 departing soldiers.


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