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U.S. and Afghan efforts to prompt market expansion and economic growth have benefited vegetable traders.

U.S. and Afghan efforts to prompt market expansion and economic growth have benefited vegetable traders.

08 January 2010

Agriculture is Top U.S. Nonsecurity Focus in Afghanistan, January 8, 2010

By Stephen Kaufman
Staff Writer

Washington — The Obama administration is coordinating assistance to the Afghan agricultural sector as a means of providing greater security in the country and income opportunities for Afghan farmers, and is doing so in cooperation with the Afghan government’s agricultural framework, U.S. officials said January 7.

Speaking at the State Department, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the approach will result in “stabilizing the country, making opportunities outside of illicit activity more meaningful and of greater availability.”

Vilsack said that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of Afghan income and 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and that 50 percent of Afghanistan’s arable land is currently under cultivation.

“There is a tremendous opportunity, not just in the growing of wheat but also in horticultural crops, for this economy to be strengthened and for greater stability to be created as a result of a stronger agricultural presence,” he said.

“I think it’s fair to say that agriculture is the top nonsecurity priority for the United States government in Afghanistan,” the secretary said.

Civilian experts from the Department of Agriculture are working with their counterparts in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the country, he said. But their efforts are “Afghan-led,” Vilsack noted, and U.S. assistance is being aligned with the Afghan government’s recently announced agricultural framework. The secretary is planning to travel to Afghanistan to discuss the project with Afghan officials.

“We look forward to helping increase agricultural productivity, regenerate an agribusiness economy, rehabilitate natural resources, with a particular emphasis on watersheds and irrigation systems. And we hope to be able to assist the Afghan government in their new change-management effort to build capacity,” Vilsack said.

To develop a relationship of trust with the Afghan government and farmers, concrete results are needed, he said. For that reason, “we’re spending a lot of time … trying to listen to precisely what the Afghans need of us.”

Depending upon the region, the most pressing needs could be irrigation assistance, promoting crop diversity, reforestation, or helping to create means of storing produce to help stabilize agricultural markets, he said.

The U.S. civilian effort is focused on the goals of creating a stronger rural economy to help reduce the unemployment rate, reducing poverty, promoting confidence in the ability of the central government to deliver services, and responding to the country’s food security needs, he said.

“If we develop these relationships and confidence in the approach, then I think we take a very significant step forward in making areas of this country far more secure, and we give people a reason to resist the arguments and the activities of the Taliban,” Vilsack said.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, who was sworn in to his appointment earlier on January 7, said the focus on agriculture stems from the principle that “you have to focus your resources on what you think are the transformative areas of change or social change and improvement.”

The Obama administration will be heavily focused on achieving results by setting targets for agricultural productivity, identifying the most valuable crops for export-oriented development, and measuring the impact upon job creation and economic stability in rural Afghanistan, he said.

“The vision of success is to have a vibrant and diverse agricultural economy, a more productive agricultural sector, opportunities for small farmers in particular … to engage in higher-value production so they have sources of income and wealth and can begin to rebuild their economies and their communities,” Shah said.

Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said the Obama administration is convinced that its decision to phase out U.S. support for poppy crop eradication is “on the right track.”

Destroying what had been “the best cash crop” for some Afghan farmers was alienating them and “driving them into the hands of the Taliban,” he said.

Instead, the United States is targeting the traffickers and drug lords in the country, and Holbrooke said that approach has hurt the Taliban’s recruiting efforts.

Secretary Vilsack said improving market access and educating Afghan farmers about the market values of agricultural produce can help convince them not to grow poppies.

“Roughly $2,500 per hectare is generated from the sale of poppies. But if that same hectare was put in table grapes, it could be as much as $18,000. If it’s put in apples, it could be somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $4,000 per hectare,” he said.

U.S. POLICY MUST INCLUDE REINTEGRATION OF SOME TALIBAN

Earlier at the Brookings Institute in Washington, Holbrooke said U.S. national security is at stake in Afghanistan, but that it is “neither possible nor necessary” to kill all of the Taliban’s fighting force in order to achieve stability in the country.

He said “60 percent to 70 percent or more” of those fighting with the Taliban now are not ideologically in agreement with the movement’s leadership. They fight for a variety of reasons, he said, including economics and a cultural tradition of fighting “outsiders,” but not because they are firm believers in the Taliban, he insisted.

“There isn’t any question that our policy has to include an opportunity for those people fighting with the Taliban who are not members of al-Qaida to rejoin the political process,” Holbrooke said at Brookings.

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