Dora Noor, Afghanistan
March 15, 2010 -- At first, the sight of American soldiers being dragged behind bulls across a mosque parking lot seems strange, but by the third or fourth time it's almost normal.
Still, the hundreds of Afghan villagers watching continue to laugh and cheer, which is a good thing in the war to win "hearts and minds."
Here in the remote eastern Kunar province in the heart of kinetic Pech Valley, the 40th Infantry Division Agribusiness Development Team from the California National Guard is working to improve the lives of farmers and connecting them with their government through simple agricultural projects and outreach.
"Our mission is to strengthen the government's relationship with the people through the foundation of their livelihood which is agriculture," said Lt. Robert Parry.
The agribusiness team is comprised of American soldiers, most of whom have an agricultural background, and American civilians who work with local Afghan veterinarians. One of their projects is to offer free veterinary clinics to local farmers in a region so poor that nearly 40 percent of the population is malnourished.
The clinics feel more like a county fair than a military operation. Instead of bullets and bombs, helicopters and Humvees, could the key to success in Afghanistan lie in the health of a goat?
Winning People Over
"The more of an Afghan face we can put on this, then the more the people will start trusting their government," said Sgt. 1st Class Jose Mosqueda.
The desperately poor are easily recruited by insurgents. The military hopes it can change that by improving the lives of the locals.
"This is something that will last like an investment over the course of a year, so the animals will be able to survive," said Lt. Col. Max Velte, the mission commander. Velte is an electrician who grew up around farms.
More than an hour before the clinics begin, dozens of farmers and their children line up to wait. They bring their goats, sheep, cows, bulls, even a pet monkey.
'I'm Helping Other People'
Tom Vermeersch, a veterinarian for the United States Department of Agriculture, checks the health of the animals as they arrive at the clinic.
"I'm feeling how much fat cover there is over the back," he says, holding back the gathering crowd.
When asked if he felt more like a Peace Corps volunteer than a soldier, First Sgt. John Hanson was quick to dismiss the suggestion that he was anything other than U.S. military.
"I feel like a soldier, but I'm helping other people," said Hanson, 50, from Monterey, Calif. "That's what we're here for."
The feel-good experience can be fleeting. The soldiers are constantly reminded that security is priority here in one of the more dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
The agribusiness team convoy was attacked and engaged in a three-hour firefight -- injuring one American soldier -- while returning from a recent clinic.
A team secures the perimeter, constantly watching the ridgelines and clinic entrances for potential attacks; local workers are patted down for weapons prior to entering the clinic.
For local farmers like Mohammad Shah, who walked for an hour-and-a-half with his sick sheep, the free veterinarian could be life-saving. Shah has 25 family members depending upon him to survive. And he depends on his goats, and their milk, to support them.
At the clinics, the animals receive vaccinations and shots including tetanus and rabies, plus treatment for internal and external parasites, worms and lice. But as Vermeersch explains, not all of the ailments can be treated immediately. A lot of it is production-related or economy-related, he said.
"'My animal is not giving enough milk, my animal has a sore foot'" Vermeersch said he hears from farmers. "Oftentimes they're looking for a very quick fix: 'Give my animal medicine to make it milk more.'
"Unfortunately that kind of thing isn't available," he said. "Increasing production is much more complex than that and goes with nutrition, genetics and many of these other things, and that comes back to building the Afghanistan government up that they can get an extension service that works, delivering that information to the farmers so they can understand what it takes to improve their own lot in life and not just look for somebody else to furnish a med, a cure in a bottle."
'We are Bored From the Fighting'
The Americans work with the Afghan vets so eventually they can turn over the entire program to the Afghans.
On a recent day, there were no attacks, and the team cared for its highest number of animals to date: 910, including 293 goats, 234 sheep, 12 dogs -- and that one pet monkey.
Haji Zalmi, the governor for the local district, said that the treatment of just one animal here is better than all of the fighting combined.
"The people are unhappy, they don't like the fight anymore," he said. "They are bored from the fighting. This is not our fight anymore, this is the foreigners' fight."