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Forests
Tree Army
An innovative U.S. military effort takes a fresh approach in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, amid the Tora Bora Mountains on the northeastern border with Pakistan, residents have severely depleted forests of clean-burning baloot oak for cooking and for heating their homes. Without the trees, the steep terrain is prone to flash floods, compounding an already tenuous existence in this war-torn country’s rural villages. To restore the natural resources, and as a counter-insurgency tactic, a civilian team, with U.S. military support, has formed an Afghan tree army.

“The flooding is frequently terrible during the rainy season because the water just shoots off eroded mountains like the ground is glass,” says Clint Douglas, civilian adviser to the project with the Defense Department. “If your harvest on your plot fails, that’s it. So the stakes are very high.” Any program that creates stability may help resolve the larger conflict, since young men with no alternatives are susceptible to recruitment by insurgents.

The project is grooming a select group of men for community leadership roles. They’ve undergone forestry training, with 296 completing the intensive program since it began in 2010. Crews work within walking distance of their homes and communities. In just three months, using simple tools—picks, shovels, sledgehammers, and crowbars—they’ve planted 10,300 trees, including pomegranate (seeds at right), and built 722 check dams (to slow runoff) and more than 11 miles of terraces (to control erosion). The results exceeded what program supporters believed possible in a full year. “We just had our first major rains, and 100 percent of the check dams that were inspected in the mountains held,” Douglas says. “People started coming up from the villages into the mountains to look at the check dams that had kept the floods from destroying the small arable plots of land and thanked the men. That gives them an incredible amount of credibility.”

After three generations that have known little but war, the tree army had to find a name for a leadership role that didn’t involve carrying an AK-47 assault rifle. The term: tolanez raghawonki, Pashto for “community savior.”
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