Nourishing Afghanistan’s Agricultural Sector

Nourishing Afghanistan’s Agricultural Sector

International actors are redoubling efforts to restore Afghanistan’s agriculture sector and weaken the massive opium trade that helps fund the Taliban. But competing strategies and corruption could stall reforms.

May 22, 2009 12:10 pm (EST)

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As the United States focuses new attention on the Afghan war front, U.S. policymakers are emphasizing rural development and agricultural reform as keys to long-term stability. Bruce Riedel, who coauthored the Obama administration’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, says Washington is "going to emphasize wheat" as an alternative to opium poppy production, which has helped fund the country’s strengthening insurgency. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the farm sector is a pillar of future development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to spend $27.5 million on food assistance and rural development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on top of $208 million spent on Afghan food aid programs since 2003.

But fitting Afghan farmers with tools to feed themselves, and eventually turn a profit, will be complicated by environmental, social, and economic factors. For one, poppy--sales of which are equivalent to roughly 30 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP)--remains the only viable cultivation option for many farmers in regions where security is tenuous. Taliban and militant drug runners provide ready land and credit for farmers willing to grow the opium-derived plant. NATO and U.S. forces have been cleared to disrupt (NYT) Afghanistan’s poppy trade this spring, but analysts say replacing this cash crop is fraught with difficulty. Complicating the reform process are disagreements among international partners over strategy, a string of recent droughts, a perceived lack of funding, and poor communication among donors that some experts say has resulted in duplicity of global efforts.

From Bounty to Parched Earth

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Afghan farmers produced abundant cereals, fruits, vegetables, and meats for domestic consumption and export. Cut flowers were sold throughout the Middle East and Europe, grapes graced the tables of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and 20 percent of the world’s raisins were Afghan grown, the Afghan agriculture ministry estimates. Domestic crop production also climbed in pre-Soviet years. Yet today, food production in Afghanistan suffers from poor management, inadequate investment, and decimated infrastructure, observers say. Though an estimated 75 percent of Afghanistan’s 34 million people live in rural regions where agriculture is the principle means of livelihood, the U.S. development agency, USAID, estimates that over six million Afghans chronically lack enough food to eat. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicts Afghanistan will have to import 2.3 million tons of cereals (PDF) between July 2008 and June 2009, more than double the one million tons imported over the same period the previous year. Environmental and political factors have contributed to the recent shortages. The Asian Development Bank reports (PDF) Afghanistan experienced a "serious food crisis" in 2008 due to inadequate rainfall, surging commodity prices, and "restrictions on wheat exports from Pakistan (the main source of supply)." The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates total wheat production dipped 40 percent from 2007 to 2008, when an estimated 2.6 million tons were harvested.

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Unless the coordination problems are solved, “all that time, money, and effort will probably amount to very little.” – Col. Dan Harris, Commander, Texas Army National Guard Agribusiness Development Team

The drought-fueled food crisis of 2008 did produce one positive trend line: a decline in opium production. Measured in hectares cultivated and tons harvested, total yields for 2008 (PDF) were off nearly 20 percent from the year before, and the United Nations estimates twenty-two of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces could be opium free by mid-2009. The traditional epicenter of poppy cultivation--the seven provinces of southern Afghanistan--saw a combined 10 percent drop last year, which the UN credited to effective replacement strategies, poor rainfall, and fluctuating commodity prices.

Curtailing Afghanistan’s opium poppy harvests is essential to the country’s long-term security and political health, international donors say. Taliban operations are largely funded from opium profits; the UN’s drug control agency estimates that in 2008, the trade was worth as much as $470 million (PDF) in annual tax and trafficking fees. The cash flow is also believed to fund strongmen and local warlords and to contribute to government corruption. Populations in neighboring states--notably Iran--have suffered epidemics linked to Afghan-produced opium.

Seeds of Hope?

Not counting opium production, a little less than a third of Afghanistan’s GDP is derived from the agriculture sector. The Afghanistan Compact of 2006--which established a framework for international cooperation in the country--laid out a five-year plan for reforming and reinvesting in development, and called for a 30 percent increase in public dollars to help farmers increase productivity by 2011. The Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the country’s blueprint for development and poverty reduction, further called for a refined regulatory framework, and an April 2009 draft development plan from the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock called for top-to-bottom reforms. An introduction to the plan notes: "Agriculture will determine whether Afghanistan will succeed or fail."

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan Near-term projections of licit crops are looking up. Tekeste G. Tekie, the FAO’s representative in Afghanistan, said in May 2009 that wheat production "will be 40 to 50 percent higher than last year," and said the country’s overall wheat-cultivated areas are up 10 percent in 2009 due to the "high price of wheat, good precipitation, and eradication of poppy." USAID estimates Afghanistan’s access to food (PDF) will increase during the first half of 2009, due to healthy wheat harvests, declining food prices, and improved road conditions--which are vital for transport to market.

The October 2008 appointment of U.S.-educated Mohammad Asif Rahimi to serve as minister of agriculture has also been interpreted as a positive step. Rahimi’s confirmation has "created an opportunity to link community-based projects with the goals of the National Development Strategy, including larger-scale irrigation schemes and other projects intended to increase agricultural output," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in his March 2009 situation report (PDF). The ultimate aim is to help restore Afghanistan’s historic agricultural standing.

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Agricultural Policy

Yet there remain significant challenges to realizing Rahimi’s goal. For one, less than half of Afghanistan’s 19.5 million arable acres are under cultivation, due primarily to shortfalls in irrigation. Prewar irrigation systems are damaged beyond quick repair, and only 25 percent are currently operating, the UN believes. Additionally, disproportionate land holdings in Afghanistan mean that many farmers do not have the acreage to grow enough food to be self-sufficient, let alone turn a profit. Further impediments include inadequate access to credit; a tattered highway system (Afghan officials estimate 58 percent of rural villages have only seasonal access to roads, while the average distance to the nearest road is nearly three miles); the perennial shortage of wheat seeds (Reuters); unreliable electricity; and an estimated 30 percent rise in the cost of fertilizer (PDF) between March 2007 and April 2009.

Different Strategies

Into this sea of uncertainty come millions of dollars in foreign aid and a competing mix of philosophies on how it should be spent. The United States has focused its efforts on "market-led" approaches, promoting high-value crops as an alternative to poppy cultivation (PDF). In fiscal year 2009, USAID requested $24.7 million for agriculture-related projects, bringing to $107.7 million total dollars spent on crop improvements since 2007. The aid agency has extended microloan credits for farm supplies, trained livestock owners in animal health care, and brought irrigation systems to an estimated 1.2 million acres of farmland. Many of the development agency’s ongoing activities are subcontracted to private firms, like CNFA, Chemonics International, and Land O’Lakes, Inc. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says future efforts include expanding agriculture training programs for Pakistani and Afghan farmers, and creating "a trilateral body to identify the cross-border water issues, one of the critical issues as to whether agriculture can be revitalized, particularly in Afghanistan."

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“If opium [poppy] is the only crop that will give you access to credit and will give you access to land, under conditions of insecurity that’s what you will stay with.” – Adam Pain, Visiting Professor, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

The Pentagon is also assisting in agricultural reform. As of May 2009, eight Army National Guard teams were deployed in six eastern provinces, working with local farmers and district officials to modernize food production. Col. Dan Harris, who commands the Texas Army National Guard’s agribusiness development team in Ghazni Province, says his team is helping Afghan farmers in livestock management, hide-tanning production and marketing, veterinary services, and other "value added" initiatives. "What we’re focusing in on is not just agriculture itself," he says, "but the businesses associated with it." These agribusiness development teams, or ADTs, have taken over the agriculture mission from U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the eastern part of the country, which Harris says makes sense given his soldiers’ civilian work experience. He counts a geologist, hydrologist, rancher, and pest-management specialist among the dozen citizen-soldiers in the Texas ADT.

Non-U.S. donors, meanwhile, have focused on strengthening rural institutions and infrastructure to enable poor Afghans "to act as agents of their own destiny," according to Adam Pain, a visiting professor in rural development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Pain refers to this strategy as a "developmentalist" approach (PDF) that emphasizes good governance, a sharp focus on poverty-stricken areas, and the implementation of microfinance programs. During a donors meeting in Paris in June 2008, world donors--including the United States--committed $20 billion to key sectors, including agriculture. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, meanwhile, has provided food and farm aid (PDF) to thousands of Afghan farmers and families with funding from a dozen foreign governments. Projects not directly related to farming but seen as vital to improving market growth, like road building (PDF), are also ongoing.

Reforming the Reform Effort

Some analysts say the proliferation of international agriculture aid efforts in Afghanistan has left an incoherent jumble (PDF) of competing strategies and programs. Among the chief criticisms of U.S. and international assistance is what is seen in some quarters as the near obsession with reducing acreage of opium poppy by transitioning farmers to licit crops (Quqnoos). Pain, who has conducted extensive field research in Afghanistan, says the focus on annual crop yields "is deeply misleading" because it risks ignoring the many reasons why Afghan farmers choose one crop over another, such as access to credit, farm size, resource availability, and commodity prices. Pain points to Helmand Province as an example. While opium has declined in profitability--the retail price of the drug has dropped in recent years while wheat prices have increased--poppy production in southern Afghanistan continues. "If opium [poppy] is the only crop that will give you access to credit and will give you access to land," Pain says, "under conditions of insecurity that’s what you will stay with."

Writing in a December 2008 briefing paper (PDF) for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Pain and colleague David Mansfield suggests a better approach would be to "fully integrate counternarcotics into the wider development agenda" to address the varied reasons why farmers plant poppy--an understanding that could help in the transition to licit crops. Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, suggests Western-led efforts should target drug convoys and opium kingpins (NYT), not growers. Other approaches range from aerial spraying initiatives to a "poppy for medicine" campaign, an idea Afghan officials have called "senseless."

Beyond the specific narcotics problem is a more fundamental concern: a lack of dollars. Oxfam America, in a January 2009 memo to President Obama (PDF), called on the United States to devote more of its development money to agriculture. Data compiled by the Afghan National Solidarity Program, which distributes the majority of international aid for Afghanistan’s rural development projects, supports the premise that agriculture has taken a back seat to sectors like education, power production, and transportation. Of the $4.4 billion spent by USAID between 2002 and 2006, just 5 percent was for agriculture-related projects. It fell to 4 percent between 2007 and 2008.

But perhaps the most common concern is what some experts say are competing agendas and a lack of coordination among donors, governments, and agencies. "It’s a mess to be quite honest," Pain says. "Basically, everyone has been going their own way." Col. Harris, who is two months into a year-long tour, says the lack of communication between the Ministry of Agriculture in Kabul, the district office of agriculture in Ghazni Province, and non-Afghan organizations is hindering progress. He says he didn’t even know the United Nations had an aid program in his sector until reading about it in a U.S. Department of Agriculture newsletter about other Ghazni Province programs. "I call them drive-bys," the colonel said, explaining how he typically learns about the agriculture-related work of other agencies in the province. "Somebody will drive by and say, ‘Hey, we heard such and such an organization is here,’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go along on a mission with us somewhere?" Unless the coordination problems like these are solved, Harris says, "all that time, money, and effort will probably amount to very little."


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