Today, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the top non-security priority in Afghanistan -- agriculture. Redeveloping the agriculture sector is a critical part of the Obama Administration and President Karzai's strategy for the future of the country. Eighty percent of Afghans either make their living or their livelihoods from agriculture or something connected to agriculture.
Ambassador Holbrooke said, "Our goal is nothing less than to help Afghanistan restore its agricultural sector to the vibrant export economy that it once had."
Secretary Vilsack recently visited Afghanistan to see the progress being made in this important area. During his visit, Secretary Vilsack met with Afghanistan's Agriculture Minister Asif Rahimi, who outlined his framework for progress in Afghan agriculture. The framework includes four strategies: (1) the need to increase productivity among the Afghans; (2) the need to reinvigorate the Afghan agribusiness, the ability to get the supply chain in place to allow the domestic market needs to be met and at the same time to create export opportunities; (3) a commitment to renew their natural resources; and (4) the need to bolster the Agriculture Ministry.
While in Afghanistan, Secretary Vilsack met with Afghan farmers and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) representatives working with local Afghans. He underscored the commitment of all those serving in Afghanistan and honored USDA employee Tom Stefani, a forester who was killed in Afghanistan.
Secretary Vilsack said, "[T]here are many different uniforms that are being worn in Afghanistan. And all the people who serve us in uniform, regardless of whether it's the forest service uniform or the USDA uniform or a military uniform, put themselves on the line to make a difference. And they understand and appreciate the importance not just to the people of Afghanistan but also the people of the United States to this effort."
Both Special Representative Holbrooke and Secretary Vilsack spoke about U.S. efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation and the need to establish a formalized credit process. Secretary Vilsack discussed how U.S. assistance is providing incentives for wheat cultivation to encourage Afghan farmers to grow alternatives to poppy, but Afghans are still faced with tough decisions.
Secretary Vilsack said, "Our effort is trying to speak to the people in the middle of all of this, whose only thought is, 'How do I take care of my family? How do I take care of myself?' And the Taliban, as long as there is opium production, have a hook on those folks. They have the ability to control their livelihood. Given a choice, they don't want that choice. They would prefer another alternative. They would prefer to be able to produce wheat or pomegranates or apples or almonds or whatever. We have to give them that choice and we have to give it to them in a way that makes economic sense."
Secretary Vilsack continued, "To put a phrase on it, from my discussions with regular Afghans, I think they would much rather be farmers than fighters."
Read the transcript of the full briefing here.