Here’s a critical piece of President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan that you probably never heard of: fighting the Taliban with saffron, pomegranates, and wheat.
The Obama administration regards agriculture as its top non-security priority in Afghanistan. Restoring the country’s once-vibrant agricultural sector would create jobs that undercut Taliban recruitment. It would give farmers an alternative to growing opium poppies and shrink the Taliban’s profit from the drug trade.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack toured Afghanistan last week, stressing the U.S. commitment to aid agriculture — a pledge made repeatedly by Obama’s special emissary to the region, Richard Holbrooke.
But can a troubled U.S. aid program figure out how to help poor, rural Afghans? In mid-November, I sat down in Kabul with Afghan Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asif Rahimi, an impressive technocrat who did postgrad work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and asked him what he needs.
Rahimi, one of a handful of ministers who survived a messy cabinet reshuffle by President Hamid Karzai, has extensive experience in development and humanitarian relief. When he took over the agriculture ministry in October, however, he found a dysfunctional office with four staff members and no Internet access, files, light bulbs, or projects in the field.
So it’s no surprise that he stresses one message: Instead of using international contractors with hefty overhead costs, whose movements are often restricted by security concerns, U.S. programs should train Afghans to deliver technical aid to dicey areas of the country.
“Our priorities,” he said, “are the building of capacity and resources in the ministry, nationally, in the provinces, in the districts and locally. Our government was drained of good people. If the United States continues to give big contracts (to international contractors), we can never grow.”
Rahimi says contractors create structures parallel to the government that pay higher salaries and drain talent from the ministries. Those structures are not sustainable. “If the United States left today,” he said, “we’d be no better off.”
The Obama administration recognizes this problem, and Holbrooke is trying to limit contractors’ role. An effort is under way to rebuild the cadre of experts within the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was drastically downsized in recent decades. Vilsack is sending 64 specialists from his department to Afghanistan, and several teams of agriculture experts from American land-grant universities have been collected into military reserve units that will do multiple tours in the country.
And Rahimi is pleased at the new U.S. emphasis on helping farmers boost food production, a shift from the Bush years, when the focus was mainly on promoting agriculture exports. The minister cites an urgent need to rebuild the country’s irrigation system (which was destroyed by the Russians and the Taliban), restart agricultural extension services and start a credit system for farmers, who are now forced to turn to poppy merchants for small loans.
Rahimi added, “Agricultural development is the solution to poppy. Helmand province (the world poppy capital) has wheat, melons, pomegranates. Saffron in Helmand is more valuable than poppy.” Indeed, in the past year, help with wheat seed and cultivation has led to a 30 percent drop in Helmand’s poppy crop (aided by a drop in poppy prices due to overcultivation).
But Rahimi insists that the key to boosting farm production is helping Afghans build up their technical expertise. He would like to see more U.S. experts seconded to Afghan ministries, both in Kabul and in rural districts, training Afghans to take over. As of November, only one U.S. expert had appeared at his ministry, he said.
“The Indian government,” he told me, “is working to establish an agricultural university, based on the concept of U.S. land grant colleges. Why didn’t the U.S. come up with this?” Rahimi fondly recalls attending an Afghan technical institute in the early ’70s — “built by the Peace Corps and taught in English.” He also recalls the glory days of USAID experts, who were hugely popular in Afghanistan in the ’60s.
“Lashkar Gah (Helmand’s capital) was little America, with lots of U.S. agronomists,” he said. “There were mountains of wheat, melons, grapes, and not even a kilo of poppy. The State Department should look back at the time when everyone was in love with American agricultural teachers.”
I think the State Department gets Rahimi’s message. Now the question is whether it can build the capacity Afghanistan needs.