Afghanistan

U.S. agriculture chief tours Afghan drug heartland

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* Vilsack seeks to boost crops, lure farmers from opium

* Says plans to send in more U.S. advisors

* Afghan central government must do more

By Sue Pleming

NAWA, Afghanistan, Jan 11 (Reuters) - The U.S. agriculture secretary visited Afghanistan's opium heartland on Monday, drinking tea with district leaders and seeking advice on how to rebuild the farm sector and lure growers from the drug trade.

Tom Vilsack toured Afghanistan's Helmand province in the south, an area where there has been success in getting farmers to switch from growing opium -- whose proceeds fuel the Taliban insurgency -- to wheat and high-value products like apples.

He got some good news. Poppy cultivation was down a third and wheat yields were up last year in Helmand, by far the most violent province in the country, where U.S. and British forces have fought to reclaim fertile valleys from Taliban control.

But he also heard a litany of problems, from irrigation issues and obstacles to getting goods to market due to insecurity, to the central government's inability to send in qualified agricultural staff to the districts.

"There is a tremendous amount of potential here but it will require a lot of work and a central government with the (agriculture) minister's leadership that is engaged at the local level," said Vilsack in Nawa, a town seized from the Taliban by U.S. Marines last July in the biggest offensive of the war.

"Farmers need to be encouraged to do the right thing," he added after meeting Helmand's governor Gulab Mangal, who has worked with Westerners to persuade farmers to switch from poppy.

One of the tactics to induce farmers has been to hand out subsidised wheat seed and fertilizer and to help with the planting of grape trellises and fruit orchards.

The Obama administration sees agriculture as the most important non-security priority in helping to stabilise Afghanistan. But at every point, experts advised Vilsack that Afghanistan's central government needed to do more.

In Laskhar Gar, one of the district agriculture chiefs was in jail and a replacement had not been sent yet. Over tea, district leaders told Vilsack of recent assassinations of officials.

LOGISTICAL PROBLEMS

Afghan Agriculture Minister Asif Rahimi, who accompanied Vilsack, said his government was doing its best to improve at the national and local level, hiring 400 new agriculture graduates at the ministry, but it would take time to build capacity.

"One of the challenges is to get people to the provinces and the districts," said Rahimi, citing logistical problems with getting offices, electricity and even providing motorbikes and bicycles for transportation.

Vilsack, a former governor from the U.S. farming state of Iowa, has met several farmers on his trip, including a group of apple and pomegranate growers in Kabul. He promised to send in additional U.S. agricultural advisors to help, part of a "civilian surge" meant to accompany 30,000 extra troops.

The farmers posed with boxes of their goods -- an illustration of the kind of higher-value products the United States is pushing to lure farmers away from poppy.

Vilsack beamed when an apple farmer said his yield had doubled over the past year. "It was important for me to see that there is a connection between programs being discussed ... and the reality in the field," he told reporters.

However, the farmers complained it was difficult to get their goods to their main market in India, because of problems trucking goods through Pakistan. A trade-transit agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan is in limbo, an issue Vilsack said he had raised with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"For exports you obviously need the cooperation of your neighbors to be able to transport your goods to where your customers are," said Vilsack, referring to Pakistan.

Rahimi put the blame on Pakistan's "unwillingness" to let Afghan trucks pass through.

Vilsack briefly visited a local market in Nawa, discussing the price of onions and potatoes with a local vendor.

"What do you see in your future," he asked Obaidullah Jan, as children pushed to watch the heavily-guarded American. "I want to learn English and maybe computers one day," replied the vendor through an interpreter. (Editing by Peter Graff and Sanjeev Miglani)

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan)

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