Afghanistan

Interview - U.S. spotlights rebuilding Afghan agriculture

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- Focus on high-value agricultural products

- Hopeful for trade-transit deal soon with Pakistan

- Aim is to boost agricultural jobs

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The United States hopes its focus on rebuilding agriculture in Afghanistan will pay off over the next two or so years and be the stimulus to draw recruits away from the Taliban, a senior U.S. official said.

Otto Gonzalez, senior agriculture adviser in the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is optimistic a focus on diversifying into high-value crops such as pomegranates, grapes and pistachios will convince farmers to switch from opium poppy.

"We know that basically 8 out of 10 people rely on agriculture for their income, their jobs and their livelihood. If we think about the most direct way to reach the people of Afghanistan, it is through agriculture," Gonzalez said in an interview with Reuters late on Wednesday.

"If we are going to be able to build confidence in them that their future does not have to be dominated by extremists, then it will be one based on agriculture," he added.

Rebuilding Afghanistan's agriculture is one component of President Barack Obama's strategy for defeating the resurgent Taliban, along with the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops.

The challenges on agriculture in Afghanistan are immense, said Gonzalez, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official whose office is now based in the State Department.

Aside from the obvious one of war, other obstacles include getting goods to market in an insecure environment and convincing farmers to adopt more modern methods.

Another stumbling block is negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan for a transit-trade agreement. This is essential if Afghanistan is able to get goods via road to trading partner India, which requires going through Pakistan, whose relations with New Delhi are notoriously fractured.

HOPEFUL FOR TRADE ARRANGEMENT

The hope is to have this resolved by year-end, said Gonzalez, though officials and diplomats involved in those talks say there are still some issues to be ironed out.

"There are going to be some bumps but it really has been moving along," Gonzalez said of the trade negotiations.

Meanwhile the Obama administration is ramping up its staff in Afghanistan, hoping to have nearly 90 agriculture experts in place by mid-January, about double the number now, Gonzalez said.

The State Department's 2009 budget for Afghan agriculture is about $315 million and projected spending for 2010 will be about $425 million, a modest amount that does not include funds drawn from an account run by military commanders.

A U.S. strategy plan for agriculture released in Kabul last week also focuses on increasing wheat yields, the staple in Afghanistan, as well as rehabilitating crumbling watersheds and modernizing storage and food reprocessing facilities.

Other projects are an agricultural credit program that is in its infancy and making government-run agricultural offices run more efficiently.

Job creation is a key goal although the State Department and the National Security Council are still discussing "metrics" to use before the program can be judged a success.

"My own personal estimation is that it will probably take close to two years to really see the kind of impact that we are hoping for," Gonzalez said. "Sometimes it takes a couple of crop seasons to really build that confidence," he added.

The Bush administration approach homed in on poppy eradication in Afghanistan but the Obama White House has abandoned that strategy, saying all it did was alienate local farmers without offering alternatives to growing illicit crops.

"Farmers have shown that when conditions are there, they will switch," Gonzalez said, adding that when wheat prices recently rose, many farmers in the east and west of the country switched from poppy -- for which there was a glut -- to wheat.

"They don't have to be convinced, but we have to have solid opportunities."

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the world's biggest supplier of the source material for heroin, has decreased by 22 percent so far in 2009, compared with last year, according to United Nations estimates.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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