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Nourishing Afghanistan's Agricultural Sector


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...

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