Brattleboro scientist returns from Afghanistan


BRATTLEBORO -- Like soldiers based in Afghanistan, Drew Adam at times had to wear protective gear, ride in heavily armored vehicles and take shelter when rockets were fired in the direction of his base.

But Adam wasn't manning a machine gun or searching for insurgents: His list of concerns included watershed management, food testing and the country's valuable licorice crop.

That's because the Brattleboro man is a Natural Resources Conservation Service soil scientist, and he has twice been dispatched to Afghanistan to lend his expertise to officials and farmers there.

Adam's most recent journey ended just a few weeks ago, and it will be his last: He is set to retire from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Brattleboro office at the end of August, and the trip to Afghanistan will serve as a punctuation mark on a 36-year career in government service.

"What better way to end anyone's career than on a high note? I clearly had that in mind when I signed up for this," Adam said Thursday while relaxing on his Strand Avenue porch.

As for retirement, he added, "I feel like I'm finally ready, and I think this has helped me make that decision."

Adam is 62, and as a USDA employee he has worked in multiple states. He expanded that service in a big way when he volunteered to go to Afghanistan in 2004, just three years after the U.S. invaded in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Adam spent six months as an agricultural adviser in Afghanistan in 2005. He was based in Parwan Province but also worked in the adjacent provinces of Kabul and Kapisa.

Adam says the experience was a positive one, and the federal government apparently agreed, featuring him on a recruitment poster after that trip. The headline declares, "Make a difference, change the world," and Adam is pictured alongside this quote: "This was my way of giving back to my country."

Adam, whose father was a World War II veteran, says he believes strongly in that notion of "giving back."

"I think that was part of my motivation for going (to Afghanistan)," Adam recalled. "I believed in the cause, and I still do. I think that Afghanistan needed our help, and it still does."

That's why Adam did not hesitate to volunteer for a second trip, though it would be much longer than the first. Departing in late 2012, Adam spent 18 months in Afghanistan, and he noticed immediately that the country had not, in fact, become safer since the mid-2000s.

"I went back nine years later, and it's sad to say security was much worse," Adam said.

In the early 2000s, he added, "I think that we came in like gangbusters and pushed out the Taliban and al-Qaida, and for a period of time there, they did not have very much influence. But as time went on, I believe they were able to regroup and strategize."

Adam's first posting in 2012 was in Logar Province, which he said "had a reputation back then, and still has a reputation, of being an insecure area." That meant that, when Adam traveled, he had to do so via convoy or helicopter with the U.S. or Czech military, both of which operated from the area.

Road travel happened via MRAP vehicles; the acronym stands for "Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected." But Adam said he was lucky in that the military base was adjacent to the provincial government's office, which meant that he could often work with local officials without having to join a convoy.

Many of Adam's interactions in Afghanistan were with the country's Department of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. Given the large amount of funding flowing in from the west, Adam said he found a generally positive reception.

"I had a reputation that preceded me," Adam said, referring to U.S. financial influence in Afghanistan. "They were always happy to see us."

Adam spent six months in Logar before relocating to Mazar-e-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. There, he found a much different environment on a base called Camp Northern Lights, which was populated mainly by Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and Latvians.

Safety was less of a concern there, and Adam was able to drive himself in an armored SUV. But driving in a large, chaotic Afghan city presented its own challenges.

"Imagine that you had every conceivable obstacle in your way -- animals, kids, pedestrians, bicycles, cars coming down the street the wrong way," Adam recalled. "My biggest concern was traffic safety. Because if we ever hit somebody, we couldn't stop (for very long). Because our lives would be in danger."

"That never happened, thank God," he added.

Adam worked on projects involving soil management and creation of a food-testing lab at the Afghan border. He also noted that water is a major concern in Afghanistan, especially in the agricultural sector.

"Everything is irrigated there," Adam said. "They don't get rain between May and the end of October, so everything in that growing season has to be irrigated, primarily from snowmelt or impounded water."

In the last 12 months of his work in Afghanistan, Adam said, "our emphasis was really changing toward what they called 'capacity-building.' The units of Afghan government -- the provincial units -- still needed a lot of internal capacity in order to work independently from Western funders."

"So we were providing computer training ... agricultural training such as soils," he said. "We did watershed management, which was a huge issue in Afghanistan. A lot of areas are overgrazed, highly eroded. So when they had heavy rains, they had problems with managing their water."

In northern Afghanistan, Adam also worked directly with harvesters and processors of licorice, trying to instill sustainable harvesting techniques in the face of overwhelming demand for that plant.

"It's a highly valued crop -- Afghanistan has some of the best licorice in the world," Adam said. "Europe, and China, too, seeks it for confectionery things -- what we mostly think of. But it's also used for medicine, and a very large portion of licorice is used for tobacco production -- for cigarette and pipe tobacco."

Adam said his work went well, but there were frustrations, especially in light of rampant corruption. Public servants are paid a "pittance," he said, and that can lead to problems implementing any lasting reforms.

"There were times when I felt that, despite our best efforts, we were not being as successful as we thought we were," Adam said.

Nonetheless, he said, "I have to believe that there were things that we were doing that made a difference."

Adam recalled that, before leaving Afghanistan, he talked with the Department of Agriculture's director about positive changes over the past decade. There are improved irrigation and planting practices, for instance, and wheat production has doubled.

"They are reaching out to more farmers," Adam said. "When you go out and see the fields, you can see modern farming techniques that hadn't been there before so somebody's training these farmers."

Adam's final assessment is mixed.

"There clearly have been great strides in Afghanistan," he said. "Things are improving. But they still have a long way to go."

Mike Faher can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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