June 15, 2011

Pentagon In Search Of 'Secret' Farmers for Afghanistan

The U.S. Department of Defense is looking to hire agriculture specialists to send to Afghanistan. That's nothing especially new -- Afghanistan's economy is heavily agricultural, the health of the country's economy is directly tied to the mission of rolling back Taliban influence, and the U.S. has been sending farming consultants there for years. But writer (and former civilian contractor in Afghanistan) Joshua Foust noticed something unusual in reading the job listing, which had been posted to recruitmilitary.com by a defense contractor. The job requires "secret" security clearance.

Then there are secret farmers. Chenega Corporation, one of the ubiquitous Native Alaskan Owned Small Businesses that gets all sorts of exemptions and set-asides from the government, is hiring cleared agricultural specialists to operate in Afghanistan.

... There's nothing too nefarious about this--as a deployed DOD contractor it makes sense to have a SECRET clearance, as SIPR is how the Army talks to itself. But still: the war in Afghanistan has advanced to the point where importing American farmers to help Afghans farm now requires a security clearance.

There are two things at play here. First, working for the U.S. government in a war zone often requires security clearance, simply because you're exposed to many classified documents on a day-to-day basis. Second, the U.S. is working to make infrastructure-building (some might call it nation-building) part of its military mission in Afghanistan, understanding that more self-sustaining Afghan industries will reduce the appeal of the Taliban and decrease violence.

But these are both only partial explanations. Agriculture consultants have been in Afghanistan for years, and though the work they do is very important, it's hard to see how secret clearance would be immediately necessary for the same farming jobs the U.S. has been doing since the war began. Either the Pentagon is getting so touchy about information security that even people on the margins of military operations now need special clearance, or this latest farming mission is about more than just the usual subsistence farming. 

Foust, writing about a plan that the same Pentagon office is working on to open an airport in Kandahar, wrote, "I guess I'm completely ignorant but I'm really curious as to what sort of non-opium business activity comes in through Kandahar." Building the economy around Kandahar without growing the opium trade that most fuels that part of the country would indeed be tricky. 

But the U.S. has at times taken a soft line on opium in southern Afghanistan, presumably reasoning that going after that business would only worsen the region's poverty and thus violence. Is this somehow related to the secret farmers that the Pentagon wants to hire? We'll never know, because they're secret. 

Update, 10:06 a.m.: William Rogers, a specialist in the intersection of science and national security with the Washington-based Center for New American Security, writes on Twitter, "Wonder too if clearances impedes ability for DOD agri-specialists to collaborate w/ NGOs working #agriculture in #Afghanistan." The Pentagon isn't the only group trying to help Afghan farmers; and the U.S. military, owing to the fact that it also spends a lot of time launching raids and drone strikes, does not always have the best access to skeptical Afghan civilians. This clearance requirement creates a new barrier between the military and civilian effort, making their joint mission to help Afghan farmers more difficult.