NAWA, Afghanistan — Launching a major drive to improve agriculture in this war-weary land, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack set off this week on a rare airborne tour of troubled Helmand province before delivering a message to its farmers.
Helmand, once a thriving producer of grains and food crops and a beneficiary of U.S. aid, today is better known as the world's leading producer of opium poppies and a Taliban stronghold. Vilsack's message was: If you grow wheat, vegetables and pomegranates instead of poppies, the United States will help you reap the financial benefits.
"This is by far the number one non-military priority here in Afghanistan," Vilsack told McClatchy on Tuesday.
Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, arrived in Nawa, a former Taliban stronghold that's become a thriving market town, in a tilt-wing Marine Osprey aircraft with U.S. military security, pledges of cash and Agriculture Department staff members to organize and run programs that were laid out in a new strategy the Obama administration drafted last year.
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More than $400 million has been budgeted in this fiscal year to support the production of legal crops, improve efficiency and rebuild irrigation systems. By next month, Vilsack's department will have 64 officials in Afghanistan coordinating reconstruction efforts. A side benefit of this initiative, U.S. officials hope, will be to exclude the Taliban, who currently benefit by taxing farmers who grow opium poppy.
Helmand is Afghanistan's agriculture heartland. Most of what little soil in Afghanistan is suitable for farming — about 12 percent of the country, according to the State Department — is in its southern provinces. Helmand is the engine that drives the sputtering Afghan agricultural machine.
At least some of Helmand's past success was due to U.S. humanitarian aid efforts dating to the Truman administration. During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the United States poured about $500 million into Afghanistan, much of it to support agriculture.
The Kajaki Dam was built in Helmand with American support in the 1950s in an effort to power the southern Afghan grid. Decades of neglect have eroded its generating capacity, however.
Now the U.S. government will attempt to revive what it started six decades ago.
The Obama administration is deploying what it calls a "whole-of-government approach" to rebuild Afghanistan's agricultural economy around legal crops and efficient design, according to a mission statement. Officials from the Department of Agriculture, the Agency for International Development and the military will cooperate in the effort.
"What's different is that we have a strategy," said Rod McSherry, the senior USDA foreign service officer in Afghanistan, who's been operating in the country since September.
Nearly 40 percent of Afghanistan's economic output comes from agriculture, compared with about 1 percent of the U.S. economy. Unemployment in Afghanistan is estimated at about 40 percent, or about 6 million men, many of military age, looking for work.
Where the unemployed find work, and for whom they work, largely depends on the efficiency of agriculture.
Meeting at a British military installation Monday with Helmand Gov. Mohammed Gulab Mangal, Vilsack emphasized the commercial logic that underpins the Obama administration's anti-poppy strategy.
"Farmers, I think, are the same wherever they are," he said. "They're always interested in being able to get the highest price and produce the most and pay the least."
In recent years, that's meant producing opium. 2007 was a record year for opium production in Afghanistan, and the country's poppy farmers produced 93 percent of the world's supply that year.
Poppy production in Helmand decreased 33 percent in 2009, but the decline probably is attributable in large part to supply outpacing demand, not to any U.S.-led counter-narcotics efforts.
Indeed, market forces are likely to trump government mandates — especially in a country with a government as weak and poorly regarded as Afghanistan's is — so market-based incentives will replace the U.S.-led effort to end poppy production by force, Vilsack said.
"They've tried eradication, and that's not in the long term a way to solve this problem," he said. "The long way to solve this problem is by making farmers extraordinarily productive producing legal crops."
The American effort appears to center on wheat. Currently about 80 percent of Helmand province's 125,000 farmers receive wheat subsidies.
"It's a crop that historically Afghans have raised," Vilsack said. Indeed, the Afghan national flag includes a crest with two bundles of wheat, forming a circle.
Convincing Afghan farmers to turn from poppy to wheat will be a tall order, however. It's been tried before, and opium production is more than seven times more profitable than growing wheat.
If U.S. efforts to bolster wheat production are successful, the next step will be to find a consumer.
The targeted market for Afghan agricultural products is India, which already receives about a quarter of Afghanistan's exports, even though they must travel through Pakistan, India's archenemy.
The Obama administration is negotiating with the Pakistani government to open an official trade route from Afghanistan to India.
"We still haven't gotten a finalized agreement, but we're a lot closer, as a result of six months of intense negotiation, than we have been in a long time," Vilsack said.
In the interim, dreams of a poppy-free Helmand are just that. During a brief discussion at the British military base, Vilsack's efforts to push Afghan farmers toward wheat were met by a stern reminder from the province's governor.
"As much as we reduce the poppy cultivation, the production of food should go up," Mangal said. "We should also find a market for these food products."
(Day reports for The Telegraph in Macon, Ga.)
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