Biobased Briquettes, not Bombs, for the Taliban?

December 10, 2012 |

Could biomass briquette mills and improved cook stoves undermine the Taliban — for one percent of what the US now spends?

From time to time, we report on correspondence exchanged with our veterans and serving men and women in the field, on the subject of the strategic and tactical opportunities in biofuels and bioenergy.

This week, we heard from Robert Haston of Florida, who writes:

“I flew 220 medevac missions in Afghanistan last Spring-Summer. The Taliban could shoot at us with near impunity because of the brush and tree covered irrigation ditches. Once the leaves fall off (AKA “deer season”) the Taliban can’t hide from our airpower, so they pretty much close up shop.

“All the facts are easily accessible for anyone to discover. I suggest you start with CNN’s casualty map to see how our casualties are concentrated in a few small areas. Then use Google Maps to zoom into areas like the Upper Gereshk – a rat’s nest of brush and tree covered ditches.

“So I asked why do they (unlike any other farms I’ve seen) grow so much brush and trees? It turns out that they use them for cooking fuel. Meanwhile, they burn off crop waste.”

The problem of brush cover and military operations has been well-understood since at least the slaughter, in 9AD, of 20,000 men organized in three Roman legions under Varus, at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. A defeat so comprehensive the even the normally-unflappable Augustus, on hearing the news, shredded his clothes and was reported by Suetonius to be seen, bashing his head against a palace wall, shouting “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!’.

In more recent times, war correspondent Erne Pyle wrote in 1944:

“I know that all of us correspondents have tried time and again to describe to you what this weird hedgerow fighting in northwestern France has been like.The fields are surrounded on all sides by immense hedgerows which consist of an ancient earthen bank, waist-high, all matted with roots, and out of which grow weeds, bushes, and trees up to twenty feet high.

“The Germans have used these barriers well. They put snipers in the trees. They dig deep trenches behind the hedgerows and cover them with timber, so that it is almost impossible for artillery to get at them. But mostly the hedgerow pattern is this: a heavy machine gun hidden at each end of the field and infantrymen hidden all along the hedgerow with rifles and machine pistols.”

Haston’s solution?

“Crop waste briquette mills. These run at a profit around the world, particularly in low wage countries. We would also trade improved cook stoves (which cut the need for fuel in half) in exchange for raw materials.

“Then the farmers could grow more food instead of brush, saving precious water. Consider this a kinder gentler form of Agent Orange (the defoliant we used in Vietnam) that the locals want.

“There is every reason to expect that we could do this without losing a dime. You could run a pellet mill and give all the briquettes away for a year for the cost of flying a helicopter ten hours.

“One thousandth of what we spent on the war last year would easily fuel all of Afghanistan’s cooking needs and eliminate the need to grow fuel wood. Even if this only reduced the Taliban’s effectiveness by 10%, this would be 100 times more effective than our current methods.”

Bioenergy in Afghanistan

It is not the first time that bioenergy has been mentioned with respect to defeating the Taliban insurgency. An effort was underway, two years ago, to deploy small-scale biodiesel production in Afghanistan to provide an alternative for local farmers to growing poppies for the Taliban-dominated Afghan opium trade. Some had suggested recovering poppyseed oil for biodiesel – noting that poppy oil prices were higher than local farmers make from the Taliban from opium. Others suggested changing to safflower cultivation, which grows well in Afghanistan and is more economically suited for biodiesel.

At the time, John Fox and Wayne Arden pointed out that in October 2009 DOD officials reported to Congress that the average cost of importing fuel into Afghanistan, or the Fully Burdened Cost of Fuel (FBCF), approaches $400 per gallon when all direct and indirect costs are accounted for, and even sometimes exceeds $400.”

Also, they noted that “a high percentage of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan stem from protecting convoys of fuel, water, and other military supplies. The Army calculated in a 2009 study that one fatality occurs for every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan.”

Fox and Arden’s extensive white paper on the topic is published here.

And there have been persistent rumors over the years that the CIA has been looking into small-scale biodiesel technologies for deployment in the Middle East – though whether it was for shortening fuel supply lines or for interrupting the opium trade was not clear.

Cooking stoves

Halston’s concept of cooking stoves and biomass pellets may well be a stronger initial idea – based on the low-cost of the technology and immediate practical benefits. Though representing a different technology, ethanol cook stoves in Africa have proven highly popular. In June we reported:

“In Mozambique, the Cleanstar project led by Danish biotech company Novozymes, is making traction to supply ethanol stoves and fuel to the local market. Due to the project’s popularity, Cleanstar says they cannot keep up with demand. In the first month, approximately 200 stoves were sold and another 3,000 are on order. Mozambican farmers sell surplus cassava that is converted to ethanol at a new facility near the central port city of Beira. The fuel is then shipped to the capital of Maputo, where Cleanstar sells the stoves.”

The Bottom Line

“I haven’t had much luck in convincing the brass about the proposal,” says Halston. “Sure it is late in the game [for US troop presence], but unless we want to just wave the white flag and give Afghanistan to an even more empowered Taliban, we need a complete change of course.”

Rightly said. Is this the smart technical path? That awaits a fuller analysis. But, why should US leaders not look further into this option — even in tight budget times?

As Senator John McCain of Arizona — no particular friend of bioenergy — wrote last summer to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, “the [Senate Armed Services] committee supports investments by the Department of Defense in technologies and equipment that will save lives, cut costs, reduce fuel convoys, decrease fuel demand at our forward operating bases, and offer our warfighters greater endurance in austere conditions.”


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