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Improvements to agriculture, which is the most important economic sector in Afghanistan, offer security benefits.

Improvements to agriculture, which is the most important economic sector in Afghanistan, offer security benefits.

03 February 2010

Afghan Agriculture and Security Interrelated, U.S. Officials Say, February 3, 2010

By Stephen Kaufman
Staff Writer

Washington — Obama administration officials describe efforts to revitalize Afghanistan’s agricultural sector as the “Number 1 nonsecurity priority” in the country. But given that Afghanistan is 80 percent agricultural, they acknowledge that security and agriculture are “integrally related,” as farmers replace opium poppies with legitimate crops, and increased profitability and job creation act as a counterincentive to joining the Taliban.

“Our goal is nothing less than to help Afghanistan restore its agricultural sector to the vibrant export economy that it once had, and which was progressively destroyed starting in 1978,” Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters February 3.

The increase in agricultural exports, such as almonds, pomegranates and grapes, not only will create many more jobs in farming, road building and other areas that have a primary or secondary connection to the export market, but may provide an important alternative to people who might otherwise earn money fighting for the Taliban, he said.

Referring to the Afghan government-led reintegration program for Taliban fighters, Holbrooke acknowledged that along with economic development, the agricultural rebuilding program shares a similar counterinsurgency goal.

“It’s going to help deny the Taliban a pool of alienated, unemployed youths who go out and get paid to shoot. If there’s a family [farming] plot, family pressures will be that they work on the farm, at least during the appropriate seasons. So it’s enormously important,” he said.

The Taliban have been preemptively attacking the reintegration program, which is now receiving international support through a trust fund. The fund is expected to total about $500 million and could be used to provide jobs and housing for returning Taliban fighters, many of whom are believed to have joined the organization to earn money rather than to support its religiously extremist ideology.

“I think they’re clearly rattled by it. It poses a direct threat to them and they know it,” Holbrooke said.

But agricultural assistance will be more challenging for the Taliban to counter. “The country’s an agricultural country, and how do you attack programs which give people seed and fertilizer and market access?” he said. Holbrooke added that the agricultural effort is “our most successful civilian program already, and it’s just started.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who visited Afghanistan January 10–12, said the program is reducing opium poppy cultivation. The Obama administration had previously ended the practice of crop eradication in favor of focusing on interdicting drugs. It is also working through the Afghan government to provide incentives to farmers to grow alternative crops such as wheat.

For example, wheat seed and fertilizer were offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to farmers in Helmand province at a substantially reduced cost. “Afghan farmers responded, and poppy production in that province was reduced by a third in a single year,” Vilsack said. “Now we want to work with those same farmers to diversify their crop, to focus not just on staple crops but also cash crops, which will create export opportunities.”

USDA data from June 2009 show that opium poppies yielded a higher return for Afghan farmers at $2,390 per hectare than staple crops such as wheat ($320/hectare) and corn ($453/hectare). However, opium earned much less than cash crops such as apples ($6,185), pomegranates ($12,828), almonds ($16,068) and trellised grapes ($18,194).

“I think the Afghans are finally seeing that there is a strategy that gets them to producing legitimate crops, and crops that can actually be far more profitable for Afghans than poppy production,” Vilsack said.

He also identified ongoing challenges, such as the need to provide more technical assistance to Afghan farmers and to establish a formalized credit process, such as a credit bank, that will guarantee farmers the resources needed to plant their crops.

The agriculture secretary on January 12 announced $20 million in U.S. assistance for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), led by Minister Mohammad Asif Rahimi.

Vilsack said February 3 that the money will be used to help restructure the ministry and provide additional expertise. It will also free up Rahimi’s schedule and allow him to travel around the country for direct meetings with farmers to give them examples of successful practices.

“What he needs is the capacity in the ministry that will allow him to go outside and visit with Afghan farmers on the ground and basically say, ‘This is what we’re doing for you. This is where it’s been successful. This is what it could do for you, if you have not yet implemented this,’” Vilsack said.

The agriculture secretary toured a new factory in Kabul that produces fruit juice, describing it as a “significant step” toward Rahimi’s goal of reinvigorating agribusiness in the country.

The factory has contracts with more than 50,000 farmers to buy apple and pomegranate crops for juice concentrate, which is then “exported all over the world,” he said.

As the enterprise expands, it “could be a $100 million market,” Vilsack said. It has already earned approval from its current suppliers.

The farmers “like the idea that they’ve got forward contracting opportunities … and that they have already essentially pre-sold their crop for the next several years,” Vilsack said.

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