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Find Your Science at GSA
27 October 2013
GSA Release No. 13-76
ENBARGOED for release until noon MDT
(18:00 GMT) on Tuesday, 29 Oct.
Kea Giles
Managing Editor,
GSA Communications
Contact On-Site:
Kea Giles
Newsroom: Colorado Convention Center, Room 608
flooding in Boulder, Colo.
Drs. Stewart and Ahmed Rafiqi (Rector, University of Ghazni) discussing possible educational and logistical support opportunities for their agriculture students. Photo credit: A. Stewart. Click on the photo for a larger image.
flooding in Boulder, Colo.
Dr. Stewart assessing the wing-wall addition to the Okaak Dam, Nawur District. Photo credit: A. Stewart. Click on the photo for a larger image.
flooding in Boulder, Colo.
SGT Todd Plybon, chemist, taking water-chemistry readings upstream of a proposed fish farm in the Jaghori District (Stewart in foreground). Photo credit: A. Stewart. Click on the photo for a larger image.

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U.S. Army Afghan Hydrological Projects: A Grassroots Tool for the Counterinsurgency

EMBARGOED for release until noon MDT (18:00 GMT) on Tuesday, 29 Oct.

Boulder, Colorado, USA – You can train for a lot of different careers in the U.S. Army, not including geology. But that doesn't mean there aren't any American soldier-geologists in the army on geological duty, including helping the people of Afghanistan better manage their water resources so they can profit from growing crops other than opium poppies.

One soldier who has written about his experience as a soldier-geologist is St. Lawrence University's Alexander K. Stewart, Ph.D., a glacial geologist and geomorphologist who is a retired member of the U.S. Army and Texas National Guard. He spent 2009 in Afghanistan in a specialized platoon of 12 soldier-scientists, along with a security team, that worked to help local communities while under the constant threat of attack.
"The Army can't do it by themselves because they don't have anyone with the expertise," said Stewart, who is presenting a paper on the project on 29 Oct. at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver. "But national guardsmen are dual trained."

The idea for the special teams came at the end of the Bush administration when the Army decided it need to take counterinsurgency efforts to the next level, Stewart said.

"The idea wasn't new but doing it openly in a combat environment was," said Stewart. His 50-man Texas team consisted of "three geologists one mariculturist, a couple of engineers, an entomologist, two or three agricultural business experts from Texas A&M, and one chemist," he said. “"We were supported by an in-house security team."

They were sent to Ghazni province where, among other projects, they worked with the local government to develop a dam safety assessment program -- which was something sorely needed in the wake of Ghazni dam failure about ten years ago which killed many people.

"There was a lot of worry about that," Stewart recalls. "So we developed a dam assessment program to help people evaluate and to do hazard planning. That helped to give them confidence on these issues."

They found that most of the people they encountered did not have a good scientific understanding of water, so their mission extended into just about anything that had to do with water. That involved a lot of fieldwork, of course, but it was unlike any fieldwork Stewart or his colleagues has experienced stateside.

"We were armed to the teeth individually and worked inside a security bubble. But we had only five, 10 or 15 minutes at any one location before we had to move," he said of the security procedures they followed to avoid potential attacks. Two of his comrades were killed in action, SSG Christopher N. Staats and SGT A. Gabriel Green, and two others were wounded. That's a 33% casualty rate for the scientist team.

"It was stressful and it required a lot of preplanning," said Stewart. "For instance, I started using a digital voice recorder to be more efficient."

Another big part of the job was making local contacts and helping people understand what it was they were trying to do.

"We did two things: worked with the people to determine their agricultural needs, and then initiated projects that were funded by the U.S. government, but built and run by the local population. They had this buy-in. I think that made the effort more effective."

As to how they can be sure they weren't unknowingly assisting the Taliban with water resources, Stewart is pretty sure that would have been impossible.

"They are community-based projects," he said. "We have to trust that they are not Taliban-run communities."

This was made clearer when teams were later ordered to work in the more hostile "Red Zones," where things unraveled a bit and required additional planning in order to check the insurgents.

"When the Taliban was involved they didn't want us doing anything," he said. That makes him pretty certain that where they met no resistance, the Taliban was not involved.

What: Session No. 279: T82. Geosciences and International Development,
When: Tuesday, 29 Oct., at 2:05 p.m. Photos Available
Where: Colorado Convention Center, Room 402

Media are invited to attend and cover this and other sessions at the GSA Annual Meeting. Onsite registration for media is in the Newsroom, Room 608, in the Colorado Convention Center. Eligibility requirements are online at
Newsroom Hours:
Sunday, 27 October: 7:00 am – 6:00 pm
Monday & Tuesday, 28-29 October: 7:30 am – 6:00 pm
Wednesday, 30 October: 7:30 am – 5:30 pm
Phone: 303-228-8431

Search the complete Annual Meeting program by author or keyword at

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 25,000 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, USA, GSA encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all levels of earth science education.