Guard soldiers have been in the country since February teaching modern farming practices in hopes of supplanting fields of opium poppies with wheat and other crops. While their work is limited to a small part of the country, they believe it is making a difference.
"Some farmers are changing their crops to wheat," said Col. Martin Leppert, the national coordinator of the Guard's Agribusiness Development Team. "They know they can't eat opium."
Mir Dad Panjsheri, an adviser for Afghanistan's agriculture minister, said about 90 percent of Afghans are poor farmers who have no other way to make a living.
He believes many U.S. aid programs in his country are doing little good. "They are wasting both time and money," Panjsheri said.
Guard officials acknowledge that changes will not come quickly.
"They've got to give it time," Leppert said. "It took years to get into the debacle that they're in, and it's going to take years to get them out of it."
Soldiers have volunteered to leave their own crops and cattle to help farmers a world away become more self-sufficient while avoiding the illegal drug trade, said Col. Mike Johnson, who is heading a Nebraska National Guard unit of 53 soldiers leaving for Afghanistan this fall, at the start of the U.S. harvest season.
Guard members from Missouri were the first to be deployed for the agriculture mission, followed by soldiers from Texas. Guard units from Tennessee, Indiana and Kansas will be involved over the next two years, Leppert said.
Agriculture accounts for 45 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product and employs more than 70 percent of its population, Leppert said.
The country produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, though other crops are grown by "medieval" methods, he said.
"They know how to drop seed in the ground," Leppert said. "But all the harvesting is done is like you see in the Bible: Wheat is threshed by hand and hauled by donkeys."
Soldier-farmers are teaching such basic techniques as planting corn in rows and using trellises to grow tomatoes and grapes, he said. The Guard is also working to improve irrigation systems and crop storage facilities.
The first wheat crop planted with the help of Guard soldiers is emerging in the Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan, Leppert said.
Food shortages have helped spur production of crops beyond opium, especially wheat, which is used to make naan, a flatbread that is a staple of the Afghan diet, he said.
The military said about $1.7 million in U.S. funds were obligated in fiscal year 2007 for agricultural improvement projects in the area known as Regional Command East, which borders Pakistan and where most of the U.S. troops in the country are based. Through May 2008, more than $1.8 million went toward such projects as livestock management training, wheat seed distribution and equipment purchases.
Afghanistan's cropland historically has been used as refuge by Taliban and al-Qaida militants, who have persuaded farmers to join their ranks, the military said.
Teaching Afghan farmers to switch their fields from opium is no easy task, said Johnson, of the Nebraska National Guard. Opium is an easy-to-grow cash crop that has always has a market, he said.
"Our competitors are putting money up front for them to grow opium," Johnson said. "They have a guarantee of cash - they don't have that guarantee with other crops."
The Nebraska unit comprises 10 soldiers with expertise in agriculture and two engineers, Johnson said. The bulk of the soldiers are being deployed for security and administrative functions, and all are involved with weapons training, he said.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Charles Kruse said members of his group are among the state's 48 Guard soldiers working with Afghans.
"Farmers may not speak the same language, but farmers can communicate with each other," he said.
Leppert said a similar effort is being considered to help farmers in Iraq.
"We don't expect 21st-century farming practices to result," he said. "We're hoping to take their medieval farming practices and bring them into the 18th or 19th century."
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.