KABUL — The Taliban make Afghanistan's opium business easy, offering credit, seeds and fertilizer to farmers to grow the drugs that fuel the insurgency.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who wrapped up a three-day visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, is determined to change that momentum by offering similar incentives to steer farmers away from the drug trade and toward grapes, wheat and other legitimate crops.
"If the Taliban offer something, you have to be able to beat it with something else," he told The Associated Press.
Farmers say they make five times more money growing poppy than wheat from the same amount of land.
The U.S. has pushed agricultural reforms to the top of its non-security agenda as part of President Barack Obama's increased focus on stabilizing the country. Vilsack, who was making his sixth visit to Afghanistan in his current job, acknowledged many obstacles, including the lack of credit facilities and poor coordination between Afghanistan's central government and 34 provinces.
The U.S. administration has reversed a Bush-era policy of destroying poppy crops in Afghanistan in favor of promoting legal crops. But officials have said the tactic has done little to reduce the flow of drug money.
Vilsack defended the U.S. efforts. He pointed to incentives offered last year in Helmand province – which produces more than 50 percent of the world's poppy. Farmers were offered wheat seeds and fertilizer at a reduced cost and the poppy crop was reduced by a third, he said, adding the initiative could be extended to nut trees and fruit and vegetable production.
But the Agriculture Ministry lacks many of the resources and expertise needed to deliver services to farmers. Vilsack announced Tuesday plans to donate $20 million to improve the ministry's capacity on condition that it accept five American advisers.
The former Iowa governor expressed strong confidence in Afghanistan's much-respected agriculture minister, Muhammad Asif Rahimi, but said he needs help.
Rahimi has established a framework that allows the U.S. to focus on new planting techniques and irrigation systems as well as restoring forests and water resources, Vilsack said.
Afghanistan was once a major exporter of dried fruits, nuts and pomegranates but the industry has been devastated by years of war. Many farmers in Afghanistan now rely on heroin-producing poppy for income and disruption of the trade could lead to job losses and a loss of goodwill.
"It's important to focus on diversification of agriculture and to make sure that farmers understand the opportunity that value-added products like saffron, almonds, pomegranates, apples and grapes can provide," Vilsack said Tuesday in an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
An estimated 80 percent of Afghanistan's population is believed to earn a living from agriculture.