Jul 22, 2014

Through a Photo Lens

Day 4: The Ride 'Home'

This day will end with a reminder of just how dangerous Afghanistan can be. But for now, the beautiful spring morning finds our delegation at Herat University, where we are meeting with the president of the university and the dean of the agricultural college.
 
Enrollment in the agricultural college has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past few years as young people have come to understand the critical role that farming plays in Afghanistan’s economy. To meet the growing demand, the university began construction of a large building specifically for the agriculture college a few years ago. But they ran out of money and for now the building remains an unfinished shell.

The dean informs us that the college’s curriculum was last updated in 1980 and that the country is still using questionable soil sample data produced by the Soviets during their occupation in the 1980s. It’s good to see that interest in farming is high. But it is a little discouraging to see what these eager young students have to work with.

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From the university, we travel to a rural farming village where we meet with elders who treat us like dignitaries. Here, farmers no longer grow poppies. Instead, they grow saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world.

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One of the farmers is asked if he makes as much money selling saffron at the market as he did selling poppies to the Taliban. He tells us in Arabic that he makes more money with saffron and adds, "And now our children don’t get hooked on drugs." When his words are translated to English for our delegation, there is a collective "wow" to be heard.
 

The saffron bulbs have been donated to these farmers. And unlike poppies, which must be planted by seed every year, saffron bulbs are perennials. They can be split. This means that farmers who divide their bulbs each year will increase their yields as the years go by.

In this same village, we meet more women who have learned to make new agricultural products from surplus crops. They are making pickles, jams, jelly and tomato paste that will help improve the local economy and increase family incomes in this village.

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There are several young men in the courtyards of this village. Some are tending to small gardens, while others appear to be hanging around in curiosity about our visit. Video-journalist Eric Crowley has a nice way with these children. He encourages them to hold his camera and look through the lens. It is a happy scene.

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Unfortunately, it’s time to go. Last night, in an exciting and spontaneous dinner conversation, the governor of Herat Province told us that scientists and professors from Herat University would meet with us today at their research farm. That’s where we are headed right now. But frankly, we will miss the warm, friendly people whom we just met in this tiny village. You can see the progress they have made and sense their enthusiasm for the future.
 
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This is a relatively safe region by Afghan standards, but we are still in a war zone and our security detail has been keeping a watchful eye on everything around us. Here, we enjoy an unfiltered glimpse of the real day-to-day life in rural Afghanistan. The people we meet and talk to are genuine and seem to enjoy our presence. But what about the people who stare at us from a distance? Are they happy we’re here too? We’ll never really know for sure. But we’re about to meet some of these people close up.

 

On the crowded streets of Kabul, we’ve not been allowed to stop or step out of our armored vehicles. But here in Herat, our security team has arranged for a brief visit to a busy Herat marketplace.
 
Finally, we are out of the relative safety of our armored vehicles and in the middle of everything. The security team is dispersed all around us in the crowd as colorful three-wheeled taxis, bicycles and motorbikes whiz by in every direction. The sidewalks are packed with shoppers who stumble upon our odd-looking group as they go about their daily business. Howard G. Buffett and Eric Crowley are taking pictures and video as fast as they possibly can. We’ll only be here for a few minutes – not a minute to waste.
 
One of the shopkeepers is staring at us. He seems skeptical. But looks are deceiving. He walks out from his storefront and hands a member of our delegation one of the cotton scarves that he sells. Then he smiles. Here, in the middle of Afghanistan, this man who has so little has given us what little he has, as a symbol of friendship. It is a moment that none of us will ever forget.

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Before we know it, we are scooped back into our convoy and headed away from this colorful place. Herat University’s research farm is at least an hour from here, and we cannot be late to meet the scientists and professors who have changed their schedules for us today.
 
Upon arrival at the farm, Howard G. Buffett, Kip Tom and the team from Texas A&M’s Borlaug Institute get right down to business. The governor of Herat has assembled Afghanistan’s brightest agricultural minds for this hastily called meeting. If there’s a good solution to keeping regional crops healthy during Herat’s three-month-long period of sustained winds, the "pivot" irrigation system that Howard proposes may be it.
 

Yet, among these brilliant minds, there is consensus that the scientific solution is only half of the equation for success in dealing with this annual problem. It is agreed that a cooperative model for sharing such an expensive tool must be developed – a model that incorporates strong business incentives where individual producers are not merely given this new irrigation system but earn it, and therefore have a stake in how it is used and maintained over many years. The team from Borlaug agrees to come up with a prototype plan that will address these individual incentives.

We leave the research farm and the assembled agricultural dignitaries feeling excited about the prospects for this development. But we’re also sober about the hard work that needs to be done just to conduct a test of Howard’s theory about "pivot" irrigation in this region. There is a healthy dose of realism about this work – both on our delegation’s part and Herat University’s part. Nonetheless, it is exciting and we are anxious to check back with this group a few months from now.

It’s time to head back to Kabul. To get to there, we must once again join troops on a military C-130 cargo flight. Upon arrival at the entrance to the airbase where we will meet the plane, we notice that security has been heightened. We’re not sure why. But it takes a long time to get inside the gates. Our personal security team becomes restless. They know that something unusual is happening, but are unsure what it is.

Once inside the base, we are hustled without delay onto the waiting C-130 aircraft destined for Kabul. About 30 American troops are packed into the bay along with us. This flight, like the one that brought us to Herat Province yesterday morning, will be long and without much comfort.

By the time we land in Kabul a few hours later, it is night. As we exit from the rear of the plane, we are greeted by military personnel who take us without detour to a conference room not far from the tarmac. Once we are there, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez and his staff enter the room. General Rodriguez is Commander, International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, and Deputy Commander, U.S. Forces for all of Afghanistan.

The general spends the next twenty minutes talking with us about the value of our visit and how much he appreciates that someone has come to witness the progress being made in Afghanistan somewhere other than on the battlefront. Rodriguez is a big supporter of the development work being done by Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley’s Task Force.

The surprise meeting with General Rodriguez ends cordially and our delegation is escorted without delay to the usual fleet of armored vehicles waiting to take us back to our compound for the night. During the trek through Kabul’s crowded streets, it becomes obvious that something is different tonight. The automatic weapons that our security team usually keeps under scarves at their sides are tonight on their laps and uncovered, as if ready for use. They are more focused than ever on every little detail around us. We don’t know why their alert level is raised, but it is.
 
When we arrive back at the compound, we’re told that there has been an attack of some sort in a nearby province. The reports are murky and conflicting. The only thing we know for sure is that there were multiple deaths and our security team is on high alert.

Day 3: The Pivot

 

If you’re tired after just three days in Afghanistan, you shouldn’t be here at all. It’s a place that requires a lot of stamina. And this will be the longest day of the trip so far.

 
It started once again before 5 a.m. as the sounds of morning prayer echoed throughout the Kabul neighborhood from a nearby mosque. Within the hour, everyone, including members of the Borlaug Institute from Texas A&M and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley, was headed for the military base in Kabul where we were to board a military transport plane to Herat Province.

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Herat is considered to be one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan. But it too suffers from an inconsistent supply of food. Poverty and hunger is widespread. Unemployment is high. More than half the families there derive their annual income from agriculture. So stabilizing the year-round food supply is critical if any other kind of social, economic or political development is going to be successful.
 
Brinkley’s Task Force and the Borlaug Institute have been working with rural leaders in Herat to develop solutions that will dramatically improve the consistency of the food supply, and therefore combat unemployment and poverty. Though there’s much to be done, Herat has made significant progress. A dinner meeting with the governor of the province later tonight promises to shed more light on this progress.
 

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For now, the trip is delayed because the U.S. C-130 cargo plane scheduled to take the delegation to Herat has mechanical problems. We’ll have to wait a couple of hours before hitching a ride on a different military transport to the province.
 
In the meantime, this delay provides for an up-close view of an armored military convoy being assembled outside the commissary at this base. Where it’s headed and for what purpose is anyone’s guess. But the armor is heavy and so is the weaponry.
 
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At 10:30 a.m., our delegation joins thirty soldiers in boarding the replacement flight to Herat. The two-hour trip is uncomfortable. C-130 seats are made of canvas stretched across steel bars. And this happens to be one of the times that we are required to wear armored vests.

Sitting on the other side of the aisle is a Marine reading The Tipping Point, the best-selling book by Malcolm Gladwell that describes "how little changes can make a big difference." We’re about to see big differences from little changes ourselves.

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At 10:30 a.m., our delegation joins thirty soldiers in boarding the replacement flight to Herat. The two-hour trip is uncomfortable. C-130 seats are made of canvas stretched across steel bars. And this happens to be one of the times that we are required to wear armored vests.
 

Upon arrival in Herat, we are immediately loaded into a fleet of armored SUVs and taken to a small canning business in a rural village. Here, in an adobe style building with a dirt floor, are twenty women – all of whom are widows who lost their husbands to one war or another over the years. Now, they’re the breadwinners in their families.  And, this is their business.  They sell their products at the market in Herat and split any profit they make equally among themselves

 

 
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Most of these women never went to school. Only through the help of various not-for-profit organizations have they learned the basic math, reading and writing skills that they need to run a business. The same goes for the products that they now make and sell at the market in Herat.

For now, they are doing fine. But there is an exciting development not far from here that promises to elevate their profile and create new jobs, more business and a more stable food supply for the region. With the help of Paul Brinkley’s Task Force and the Borlaug Institute, a large-scale food processing center is being built.

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The food processing center will be run exclusively by women. Here, farmers from throughout the region will have a centralized place to bring the extra food that their families don’t consume. The ability to process and store the surplus means that families will have a more stable source of food during the winter months. It also means that the food farmers grow can more easily be exported to markets farther away. This processing center will help establish women as integral to the economy and create an additional revenue source for farmers and more food stability for everyone in the region—all at the same time.

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From here, our delegation travels to the Noor Agricultural Seeds Company where Kip, Andy and Howard visit with management and assess the status of seed production and sales in the region. Howard is curious about the process the company uses to evaluate the condition of the seeds and the reliability of information printed on the packages. He hints that they can do better, but seems impressed nonetheless with the whole operation.
 

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Here, in addition to purchasing seed, farmers can also purchase new equipment at relatively low cost. That’s good because this delegation has seen more oxen than tractors in Afghanistan so far. Equipment like this is needed to help boost food productivity quickly.
 
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Before leaving this location for our final destination today, we spot an elderly gentleman sitting across the street. Like everyone else we’ve met so far, he agrees to let us take his picture and is happy to meet us.
 
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Our final destination in Herat on this long day is the compound where we will be having dinner with Dr. Daud S. Saba, the governor of Herat. It is also the place where we will be staying overnight.
 
This dinner promises to be fascinating. The combination of minds around the table will include the staff of the Borlaug Institute, the U.S. Task Force that is hosting our delegation, Howard G. Buffett, Howard W. Buffett, Andy Weber of Farm Journal Media and Kip Tom, president of Tom Farms. All of these people are keenly interested in the agricultural development of this region. Most of them are in a position to get some interesting things accomplished. But never before have they all been together in one room.
 
The dinner meeting a few hours later doesn’t disappoint. When the governor arrives, the conversation quickly reveals an interesting weather phenomenon that creates a unique challenge for farmers in the region—one that none of our American agricultural delegation has ever heard of before. Apparently, every year, Herat endures a three-month period of sustained winds averaging 30 kilometers an hour. This type of strong wind dries out the area’s crops the same way it would dry clothes on a clothesline—quickly.
 
The only solution available to the farmers is flood irrigation. But flood irrigation is done twice a month. And when the crops are first flooded, they get too much water. Then they become parched and weak before receiving water again. This harsh cycle reduces both the quality and the quantity of the crops each year.
 
That’s when the idea of a "pivot" came up from Howard. A large pivot irrigation system would allow farmers to use the water table beneath their land to keep their crops as moist or as dry as they needed to be. Such a system might be shared between multiple farmers. And if successful, those farmers could even start using their land to grow multiple types of crops instead of just one.

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The benefits seemed obvious and exciting. But how could this idea be tested in Herat? We’d only seen small farms and no mechanization at all in Afghanistan so far. Was there a farm big enough to provide a working laboratory in the province? And if so, who owns it? Finally, where would the money for the pivot come from?
 
The final question was answered first. And it was a stunner. From Howard G. Buffett came the following words: "I’ll buy the pivot if we can find a place in Herat to test it."
 
Following this comment by Buffett, Governor Saba wasted no time informing him that the university in Herat had a research farm and that he would have all of the scientists meet our delegation there the very next day. The gentlemen from the Borlaug Institute volunteered to do all of the necessary studies and planning. And Kip Tom volunteered to develop a "white paper" on how to use the pivot, particularly during Herat’s annual three-month-long windstorm.
 
This had been a remarkable day. It ended with a remarkable evening. Tomorrow, we will meet at the research farm—something we never planned, but something very exciting.

Day 2: Potatoes, Dynamite and Open Doors at 14,000 Feet

The end of this day in Afghanistan will be remembered for its chilling hour-long flight over and around the desolate mountaintops that separate Kabul from the province of Bamiyan. The beginning, on the other hand, will be remembered for the reverence and reverberation of morning prayer as it echoes throughout the neighborhood from a mosque near the compound. It’s 5 a.m.

 
The security detail is already poised for a trip through the city to the airport. Their armored cars are lined up, engines running.
 
At the airport, American troops in two Black Hawk helicopters will lift our delegation over the Hindu Kush mountains and deliver us to a new set of armored vehicles at a NATO base in Bamiyan. The hour-long aerial trip will save four hours of remote highway driving each way. And a military escort will provide an additional level of security throughout the day in Bamiyan.
 
Each helicopter is manned by five American troops, including aerial gun operators at-the-ready on either side of the aircraft. Everyone is wearing armored vests?everyone except us. There is an additional military presence as an escort for an American general who will be with us all day today. They wear vests too! But, like us, the general does not.
 
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Howard Buffett is eager to take and share rare in-flight photos of this rugged mountain terrain, including the remote villages and streams that occasionally interrupt the otherwise desolate landscape. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His cameras are ready. He’s ready. But the doors to the helicopters won’t be removed prior to lift-off and he simply won’t be able to get a clear picture by shooting through the window. Buffett is disappointed. But he has a plan for the return trip and will be working on that plan for the rest of the day.
 
The terrain below makes you wonder how anyone could survive here. The occasional villages that we see from the air are separated by miles and miles of rocky, lifeless landscape. There are no roads to be seen and only an occasional stream running near or through the villages.
 
Throughout the flight, we continue to climb. Bamiyan sits at an altitude of 9,200 feet. The mountaintops appear more daunting and colder as we get closer. After 55 minutes, the Black Hawks emerge over the Bamiyan valley. The view is spectacular.
 
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To our right we can see three haunting, man-made vessels carved into the side of the Koh-i-Baba mountains. These immense carvings once housed towering Buddhas that were carved thousands of years ago during the Kushan period. One of them was 175 feet tall?the largest known statue in the world.
 
Today, the carved openings that housed them rest empty except for the rubble left behind by the regime that destroyed them. The Taliban claimed that the Buddhas were an affront to Islam. They used them for target practice and then destroyed them with dynamite. So proud were they of this effort that they recorded the destruction with photos and videotape.
 
 
The people who live in Bamiyan are Islamic. But they loved their Buddhas. And their destruction now serves as a reminder of oppression?a rallying point for the freedom of religious expression. There is an effort to rebuild the Buddhas. But it is going slowly at best, and many people wonder how it is possible to replace the originals that were thousands of years old.
 
At the NATO base we are informed that this airstrip will someday serve as Bamiyan’s commercial airport. There are no commercial flights here yet, but they will come. This is a relatively safe and prospering place compared to a few years ago. There’s much to do. But the people of Bamyan are already doing it.
 
The first stop for our convoy as we leave the NATO base is a rocky hillside overlooking the valley. From here, we can see villagers coming and going on the road below us. The only motorized vehicles other than our own are occasional motorcycles. Otherwise, men, women and children walk, use bicycles or ride donkeys back and forth. From this distance, everyone seems happy. It is a pleasant place?peaceful and pretty.
 
Bamiyan is more lush and colorful than the places we visited close to Kabul on Monday. There is good farmland here. Bamiyan potatoes in particular are well known. There are other crops with potential too! Large copper deposits have been discovered in the region and, prior to the destruction of the Buddhas, this was even a place that benefited from tourism.
 
We’re about to meet the governor. She is working on many development initiatives including education, agriculture and a resurrection of tourism in the region. She happens to be the first female governor in the history of Afghanistan. As the gentleman from the United Nations said yesterday, "Change is in the air in Afghanistan. You can feel it."
 
Her name is Habiba Sarabi. Governors are appointed, not elected, in Afghanistan?appointed by the president of the country, Hamid Karsi. It is an honor to be with her, yet she treats us as if we are the dignitaries.
 
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Howard, Kip and Andy engage her in conversation about how things are shaping up in Bamiyan. Has there been progress? What is most pressing right now? The answers are fascinating.
 
For anyone who is tired of hearing what is wrong in Afghanistan, this conversation must be shared. Bamiyan Province under Governor Sarabi’s leadership has already improved a lot. Nutrition, education and even tourism are improving noticeably. There is potential for private investment in the development of the large copper deposits that will help to create new kinds of employment, and private investors are already building new hotels with hundreds of rooms that can meet the expected demand for tourism.
 
There is much to be done, for sure, but life has improved so much that people who once fled during the reign of the Taliban are now returning. Sarabi and her team have even built a new college in the capital. People are happy. They wave and smile to us. And if you ask them if they are better off today than they were five years ago, they will tell you in no uncertain terms, "yes."
 
We leave the governor and her staff with a great sense of optimism. We can see that she is respected by everyone here. There’s no doubt that she is helping to improve the lives of everyone in Bamiyan Province. It is exciting.
 
We’re off now to see how local farmers have improved the way they store their famous Bamiyan potatoes. For hundreds of years, they stored their potatoes in mud huts above ground. Now they are storing potatoes in buildings belowground, where they can stay cool and last much longer.
 
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This may seem like an insignificant development in the agricultural value chain in Afghanistan, but it’s not. Kip Tom pointed out that more could be done to reduce humidity in the storage of these potatoes?more can always be done. But he also noted that a minor financial investment of about $150,000 by the Defense Department Task Force that helped to develop and build these potato storage facilities returned more than $2 million in earnings for regional farmers in the first year alone. It’s emblematic of the kind of bottom-up inexpensive success that the Task Force is having in Afghanistan. It’s why Howard and now Kip and Andy are so supportive of the Task Force. This is not business-as-usual when it comes to economic development in foreign countries. This is actually working.
 
While touring the underground potato storage facility, we somehow lose sight of Howard Buffett. As it turns out, he spotted a local farmer plowing his field using one of the oldest known methods: two oxen and a hand-guided plow. Howard is sitting in the dirt of Bamiyan valley at the edge of this farmer’s field taking picture after picture. And the farmer is loving it.
 
As the rest of the delegation catches up with Howard at the edge of the field, the farmer signals Kip to come and try plowing this way for himself. Kip, one of the hardest working, most technically advanced farmers in the United States, cannot resist. He gets right behind the plow and realizes very quickly that the farmer is working as hard as the oxen are. Yes, things have improved a lot in Bamiyan Province, but most of the farming is still a labor-intensive process. Nothing is mechanized. It’s all manual labor.
 
What’s even more fascinating than the way in which this farmer is plowing his field is how much he enjoys having us here with him. He wants everyone to try plowing with his oxen. Howie gives it a try. But, like Kip before him, he has a hard time keeping the powerful oxen going in a straight line. The farmer is laughing along with the rest of us. We don’t speak his language; he doesn’t speak ours. But we’re all enjoying this moment together.
 
Agricultural development in Bamiyan Province is definitely improving. The relatively tiny investments made by the Task Force are having a significant impact. Now, we’ve seen it firsthand. But the potential for feeding a hungry family or even a hungry village, as great as it is, pales in comparison to the potential this region has for large-scale exportation of agricultural products like the famous Bamiyan potatoes. Once that starts happening, everyone will see the benefits of this kind of bottom-up agricultural development in Afghanistan.
 
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From here, our group is off to visit the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. This we do with mixed emotions. It is both an inspiring and a haunting place. As we walk below the cavernous, empty vessels where the towering Buddhas once stood, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are walking down the same paths the Taliban used when they destroyed them. Here at our feet is the rubble of the once towering Buddhas?one of them the tallest statue in the world. It is an awful feeling.
 
There is an attempt to rebuild or restore, if that’s possible, these once majestic symbols of religious freedom. But the estimate is that it will take $100 million to do it. Afghanistan does not have $100 million to spend on statues. So it is likely to be accomplished, if at all, in some other lifetime.
 
In the meantime, there are indeed tourists here. Not many, to be sure. But there are some. And, in an odd way, they now seem to come as a witness to the product of intolerance and oppression. Yes, they mourn this great cultural loss. But they also celebrate the tolerance and freedom of religious expression that the Buddhas of Bamiyan have come to represent to the entire world.
 
It’s getting late now and our security team is ushering us back to the cars. The Black Hawks are waiting for us at the NATO base. We have an hour-long flight back to Kabul tonight. And we need to do it before sunset.
 
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As we arrive back at the base and load onto the helicopters, it becomes obvious that Howard Buffett has worked some magic. This time, the doors are open wide on each of the two Black Hawks. Howard has quietly been working all day long to convince the general to let us fly back to Kabul without the doors. He wants those pictures. He wants to share them with the world.
 
We are quickly belted into our canvas seats and, before we know it, the Black Hawks are up over Bamiyan and headed for the mountains. This is about to become the longest, coldest ride home in helicopter history.
 
Within minutes, we are 14,000 feet in the air, traveling at 50 knots over and around the snow-covered mountaintops. It’s like being in a wind tunnel?literally freezing. Even the soldiers are clutching their chairs. Howard rides in what’s called the hurricane seat. He endures more wind and more cold than anyone else. Every once in a while, an unexpected gust of wind cuts directly through the helicopter doors?that’s the worst. The airships catch those gusts and bump around in unnerving fashion. Every time it happens, one of the soldiers grabs for his backpack before it can slide out the door into mountaintop oblivion.
 
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This is actually kind of scary. There’s just no other way to describe it. Some people describe it as nearly torture. A member of the Defense Department Task Force is holding his hands on his head?he’s bald and the air is so cold that it’s painful. Howard’s photos? How he took them is a mystery. But he took them, and they are fantastic.
 
Tonight we’ll sleep well, but not for long. Tomorrow we are back at the airport early in the morning to catch a military airlift to Herat Province, where we will stay for two days as we visit that region.
 
 

Day 1: An Overview

As members of the delegation stepped off the road and onto the hillside, one of the guards let out a firm "No!" In his defense, he’d warned them earlier to stick close to the security team. "We have to watch for land mines," he said. "Let me check first."
 
They were standing at the side of the road in the mountains of Iraq, close to the point where Turkey and Iran converge at the northern border. Their escorts, armed Kurdish security guards, knew the terrain well and were a little nervous.
 
This would be the last of nine days spent trekking through rural Afghanistan and Iraq by this curious delegation and their security team. The delegation consisted of American philanthropist and farmer Howard G. Buffett, his son Howard W., who serves as a director of agricultural development for the U.S. Defense Department in areas of unrest outside the United States; Andy Weber, President and CEO of Farm Journal Media, the world’s largest agricultural media company; and Kip Tom, President of Tom Farms. Video photographer Eric Crowley and marketing executive Lou Pierce were along to document the trip and create a film about the agricultural progress that has been made in both countries since the two wars there began.
 
Howard and his Foundation have been working with the U.S. Task Force and other organizations like the United Nations’ World Food Programme and the Borlaug Institute to help bring stability to food-insecure regions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Andy and Kip  joined Howard on this trip as representatives of the Farm Journal Foundation and its program called Farmers Feeding the World.
 
Together, these gentlemen feel that they can tell the story of success in Afghanistan and Iraq that other media might be ignoring. Howard W. has been key to getting this delegation approved and organized – a monumental task in itself.
 
The trip started seven days ago, as the group flew into the dusty city of Kabul – a city of 2.8 million people with no discernible downtown – at least from the air. Unlike other large cities, this one consists mostly of single-story dwellings.
 
 
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The airport was buzzing with military helicopters and cargo planes. The mix of commercial airlines and military assets made it clear that this is a war zone. Kabul’s airport is big, but there’s nothing fancy about it. No grand cultural or architectural statement is made here. It’s an airport. That’s all.
 
The group was met at the entrance by a professional non-uniformed security detail that drives unmarked, armor-plated SUVs with blast-resistant windows that cannot be rolled down. These former Navy Seals and Special Operations troops would live with, transport and protect the delegation while in Afghanistan. Once packed into the convoy, the team headed for a plateau that overlooks the city of Kabul.
 
The drive took them down roads and past buildings that reminded them they were in a hostile place. Many buildings were reinforced with sandbags, concrete obstructions and tall cement walls that effectively prohibited anyone from seeing what was on the other side. The convoy drove up right past the Presidential Palace of Hamid Karzai, but no one could see it. The protective walls hid it from view.
 
Soldiers, machine guns and armored vehicles could be seen protecting buildings and strategic corners throughout the city. The security team warned the group to avoid showing cameras or taking pictures as they drove through the many military and police checkpoints. No one wants their picture taken if they are in the military or among the police here. Not right now, anyway.
 
The plateau above the city was protected by Afghan police and military personnel who viewed the convoy with caution as it passed. As the group emerged from their protective SUVs to take in the view, they noticed that at least one of the Afghan guards moved in close to keep an eye on them.
 
From this summit above the city, you can see in every direction. It was early spring and there wasn’t much color – just a dreary, grey-brown cast over everything.
  
Above the plateau was another small plateau with a swimming pool and a high-dive platform. The security detail said that it was built by the Soviets during their occupation in the 1980s and that the Taliban used the high-dive to hang people from in the 1990s.
 
There were beggars up here – two little girls who asked everyone in the group for a "dollar." They didn’t get money, but they were given bottles of water. Beggars, of course, can be found everywhere in the world, including any U.S. city or town. These two were cute. Their parents probably sent them up here to fetch whatever they could.
 
 
 
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It was starting to get dark, so the delegation was packed back into the cars and headed to a secret compound for the evening. As they drove past the Afghan military who were guarding the plateau, one of them turned back to see where the two little girls were. They were waving goodbye from fifty yards away.  That was a surprise. Beggars usually take what they can get and then scurry away. But these weren’t beggars. They were sweet little children.
 
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This was just the beginning of the arrival in Afghanistan. There was a hectic schedule planned for this group. And there would be a lot more surprises.
 
As the convoy of armor-plated SUVs made its way through the crowded city streets of Kabul, the security detail explained how they work. The vehicles are designed to blend in with others all around them. They never travel the same way twice and avoid the more traditional convoy habit of driving bumper-to-bumper as if in a parade.
 
At the compound, everyone would sleep with bullet-proof vests at their side. If they heard gunfire, explosions or sirens, they were to move quickly to a designated safe room within the facility. This is a dangerous place.

 

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