Forestry on the Front Lines
By Richard Conniff
Early in August, before he rotated back to the States from Afghanistan, a civilian resource manager named Harry Bader ran a forest transect across the Tora Bora Mountains, the rugged border country notorious as the one-time hideout of Osama bin Laden. Bader was traveling in a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter, with a second Black Hawk in support, flying the landscape 250 or 300 feet above the treetops at about 70 miles an hour, well within range of ground fire. The job was to inventory marketable timber by tree species, crown diameter and height. Smuggled across the Pakistan border, a single big cedar tree can sell for $1,000, more than most local households earn in a year.
U.S. and coalition military forces had been acting on the belief that trade in black-market timber, like trade in opium, was providing cash for the Taliban, al Qaeda and other insurgents. Worse, it was turning mountain villages away from the Afghan national government, which banned tree harvesting in 2006. Timber smuggling also got the blame for the widely reported destruction of the upland forests. Bader, who wears a Yale Forestry cap and jokes about leading the Yale forestry extension service in Afghanistan, was figuring out the details of that trade by traveling on foot and by air into areas his military escorts call “kinetic,” meaning “extremely violent.”
He was also working to use that knowledge to woo the timber-smuggling villages back to the side of the Kabul government. To that end, Bader and a small band of colleagues headquartered in Jalalabad were also organizing a civilian forestry corps that has become known as the Afghan tree army. While the military works to defeat insurgents with M-16s and Hellfire missiles, the ambition is for this tree army to defeat them with homemade Pulaski axes and Biltmore sticks, the tools of conventional forestry roughly a century ago.
Bader describes what he does as “natural resources counter-insurgency.” It’s an unfamiliar discipline even to many counter-insurgency (or COIN) experts. But it’s one that is likely to get greater attention—and ratchet up the challenge for environmental managers—in a world where wars increasingly turn on environmental factors. Unlike conventional civilian development projects, the counterinsurgency focus puts the emphasis on results that are, if not immediate, at least pretty damn quick. “Nothing that I do is development, and nothing that my colleagues do is development,” says Bader, who works for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “We have a very limited view. What we do is nonlethal COIN in order to, in effect, be a force multiplier for lethal COIN.” He also readily admits that “this is not the solution in the long term.” It’s just a way of buying time. What’s really needed to restore stability in Afghanistan is long-term nation building—a commitment by world governments and the Afghan people to rebuild the civic and natural infrastructure, including reforestation, watershed restoration and agricultural development. But for now, Bader is using his forestry training “to defeat insurgencies long enough that these other things” can happen.
The tree army was originally the brainchild of an Army civil affairs officer, Maj. Clint Hanna, and a senior State Department advisor, Dante Paradiso, Yale College Class of 1992, both working with Col. Randy George, then-commander of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Mountain Warrior. What they had in mind was something like the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, deployed at hyperspeed. They brought in Bader as part of a joint military-civilian “natural resources counterinsurgency cell” and launched the tree army in May, with a five-week training program for a core group of 13 local forest supervisors, mostly graduates of Nangarhar University in Jalalabad.
In the field, despite these American antecedents (and about $2 million in American funding), the tree army will be entirely an Afghan operation. The 13 supervisors are now passing on their knowledge to 50 newly hired foremen, who will in turn recruit 250 workers this fall in mountain villages around Nangarhar province. If the Afghan tree army succeeds during the initial rollout, then Zorghun Afghanistan (Green Afghanistan, as it is known locally) could go nationwide. But no one is defining success according to the slow timetable of conventional forestry. Instead, says Clint Douglas, a Department of Defense consultant who is part of the Jalalabad counterinsurgency cell, the aim is to have a “significant impact” on the next fighting season, beginning in the spring, with tree armies in four northeastern provinces. (In addition to Nangarhar, they are Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman, where, by Bader’s count, five separate insurgencies now operate.) The basic tactic is to “dry up the well,” says Douglas, by employing the same young men of military age who would otherwise be most heavily recruited by the insurgents.
Status counts for everything in the mountain villages and, thus, also in the tree army. Discrimination by both gender and birth rank are the basic terms of doing business. “This program is limited to first, second and third sons, because these are the ones that the Taliban is after,” says Bader, because they’re the ones that the Taliban recruits as leaders. Conventional development programs are content “putting idle young men to work to keep them from becoming insurgents. But “those fifth, sixth and seventh sons” are bottom-of-the ladder foot soldiers, the $10-a-day Taliban. That’s not who we’re targeting, because that’s not the group of people who are going to switch a village to the government. It’s the first, second and sometimes third sons who have prominence, ability and respect.” They have the potential to become what Afghans call “the social man,” with the tree army giving them a way to earn that status “in a nonlethal manner” and by providing a service with high local value—forest and range management in the upper watershed, including construction of stacked-stone check dams, terraces and other forms of erosion control. “Everything will be built with natural materials on-site so that these villages can maintain them,” says Bader. Flying in cement or steel by helicopter doesn’t work because the villagers get no sense of ownership. Modern forestry tools are also out, says Bader, “because if one of our young men is walking around with something that’s optical, or electrical, or has batteries or a GPS, they’re going to get killed by the Taliban, because that’s all material that can be used in IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices. “So we had to rethink the curriculum. I have many books on my desk right now from Gifford Pinchot and others on how to do management and build using 1900’s technologies. Instead of a wedge prism (for establishing fixed-radius plots in the field), we’re using a small washer at the end of a string. We’re using a modified Islamic Pashto Biltmore stick. Nothing we do is pretty, but it’s practical. It’s Gifford Pinchot’s forestry, pure and simple.”
In a war zone where not much else seems to work, can a tree army with such rudimentary equipment actually make a difference? Bader says the tree army has already earned sufficient prestige that even college graduates—almost always elder sons—are now vying for positions at $12 a day, though conventional development efforts often have trouble getting people to sign on at far higher wages. Then he recounts an incident this June, late in the training of the first group of supervisors, when they were discussing where to focus the tree army’s first public project. “They unanimously stated that it had to occur in this one area under one particular tribe that had lately taken a major risk by entering into an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. military. “Somebody stood up and said, ‘I hate this tribe. If they came to my area I would probably want to kill them. However, if the insurgency is to be defeated, this tribe must be the first to benefit.’ That was the eureka moment, about creating that social man, the person who can rise above his tribe and see the larger picture.”
But it is, of course, too soon to know if whole villages will follow.