Agricultural development is the “top non-security priority” in Afghanistan, said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in a recent speech
. “Unemployment is the best recruiting tool for the Taliban,” he told the Des Moines Register
Sixty USDA experts are working with their partners in State, USAID
, DOD, and other members of U.S. government to increase agricultural opportunities in rural areas of the country. Embedded in small civil-military units of 15-100 people, USDA experts have worked on projects of all scales
: installing windmill water pumps, training veterinarians, refurbishing university research laboratories, stabilizing river banks and irrigation canals, and developing storage facilities.
In his keynote speech at the Feed the Future launch, Vilsack emphasized the need to build markets. In Afghanistan, USDA is focusing on improving infrastructure so farmers can receive deliveries and ship produce, and boosting credit vehicles to help farmers purchase the inputs to grow crops. Opium traders provide seeds to the farmers and pick up the crops at the farms, he said, which makes opium easier to produce than legal crops.
Alternative crops could be just as or more valuable, Vilsack told NPR:
Table grapes are in some cases perhaps four and five times more valuable than poppy. Saffron, almonds, pomegranates, a number of fruits are significantly more profitable. What we have to do is we have to establish that the reward of putting those crops in the ground is greater and the risk is equal to or less than poppy production.On the same NPR program, Vilsack’s counterpart agreed: “Agriculture growth means employment and employment means security. They’re so much related to each other. In places where the military operates, if you do not offer people the future, just by military means, security and stability will be a very far-reaching dream,” said Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock Mohammad Asif Rahimi.
But the Afghan government faces an immense challenge: Afghanistan’s unemployment rate is estimated at 35 percent, which ranks it in the bottom 20 countries in the world. With a population growth rate of 3.5 percent and nearly half the population already under the age of 15, the need for job creation is only set to increase.
While agricultural development and food security are essential, Rahimi acknowledged, alone they are not enough. The Afghan government needs a “whole of government approach,” he said. To win the hearts of its people the government must offer “an alternative to what the Talibans were offering to people…more livelihood and security and education and health, and also a better and more secure future.”
Both Vilsack and Rahimi avoid the common trap of equating hunger with conflict, instead emphasizing agricultural employment and economic opportunities as key to solving that intractable conflict.
But it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. I hope the Feed the Future’s “whole of government” approach in Afghanistan will emphasize not only agriculture, but also the environmental policies and health services, such as family planning, that can ensure that agricultural gains are sustainable even after the troops leave.
Sources: Central Intelligence Agency, Des Moines Register, NPR, United Nations Statistics Division, United Nations Population Division, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of State.
Photo Credit: Colonel Stephen Redman and John Van Horn of the USDA discuss crop plans with local residents while surveying the site of the Arkansas Agribusiness Development Team’s (ADT)demonstration farm plot near Shahr-e-Safa, Afghanistan, courtesy Flickr user isafmedia.