WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghans would rather be farmers than fighters, the U.S. agriculture secretary said on Wednesday, highlighting a U.S. focus on farming jobs to lure people from the battlefield and curtail the opium trade.
Separate from the Afghan-led re-integration plan announced by President Hamid Karzai at a conference in London last week, Washington sees its agriculture program as a way of impeding the Taliban, said the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.
“This is going to really hurt the Taliban, no question about it,” said Holbrooke. “Unlike, say, re-integration, which they can attack, it’s harder to attack this one because the country is an agricultural country.”
U.S. agriculture chief Tom Vilsack visited Afghanistan last month, meeting farmers and looking at ways of reviving a sector that is the main income source for eight in 10 Afghans.
“From my discussions with regular Afghans, they would much rather be farmers than fighters,” said Vilsack. “This is an economic issue.”
A major goal, he said, was to show farmers that legitimate, high-value crops like pomegranates and grapes could ultimately be more profitable than growing opium poppies, whose proceeds fuel the insurgency.
Neither Holbrooke nor Vilsack could provide firm numbers on how many new farming jobs could be created but Holbrooke said rough estimates -- and these could not be vouched for -- could be as many as 1 million new jobs, from working the fields to marketing and packaging goods.
“The sky seems to be the limit,” said Holbrooke, adding that boosting agriculture was an integral part of the Obama administration’s counter-insurgency strategy.
“It’s going to help deny the Taliban a pool of alienated, unemployed youths who go out and get paid to shoot,” he said. “In the classic parlance, it will dry up the swamp.”
But the program faces obstacles from insecurity to irrigation, a shortage of refrigerated storage for perishable items, a lack of experts in the Afghan agriculture ministry and getting goods to local and international markets.
India offers the greatest potential for Afghan produce but problems in transporting goods across neighboring Pakistan have been a stumbling block in boosting sales of apples, pomegranates and nuts -- higher-value products being touted to pull farmers away from planting opium poppies.
Holbrooke said trade-transit talks were ongoing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with another round planned soon after meetings in Dubai at the end of last month.
“We are down to just one or two issues but they are very complicated and they involve the equities and politics of both Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said, without elaborating.
In the meantime, the United States is seeking to pull away farmers from growing opium poppies and switch to wheat or higher-value products like pomegranates and table grapes.
Farmers have relied on the Taliban to offer credit facilities, paying up front before the poppy harvest comes in.
To counter this, the United States is helping the Afghan government to stand up a defunct agricultural credit bank but details are still being worked out.
One of Vilsack’s favorite graphs shows net returns on opium per hectare at $2,390 last year compared with $12,828 per hectare of pomegranates.
“The Taliban, as long as there is opium production, have a hook on those folks. They have the ability to control their livelihood,” said Vilsack, himself a farmer and former governor of the grain-producing state of Iowa.
Editing by John O'Callaghan