Special Briefing on Sustaining Agriculture in Afghanistan

Special Briefing
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Afghan Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock Mohammad Asif Rahimi
Nawa District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
January 11, 2010

SECRETARY VILSACK: I’ve been in Afghanistan for just a little bit over a day and its been a very interesting experience and opportunity for me to see firsthand the progress that’s being made here. As the Minister knows, we’ve made an effort to try to parallel our efforts with what the Afghan Government has decided is part of its national agricultural framework. In the area of agricultural productivity, we’ve heard from farmers who were able to increase significantly their grape production. We saw here today efforts at encouraging farmers to produce wheat by subsidizing the additional planting of wheat. We have also had an opportunity to visit with a number of people who are working for USAID and USDA in the area of natural resources, which is a very important consideration, hearing about thousands, tens of thousands, and in some cases, millions of trees being planted in this country.

The Minister has informed me on a number of occasions of the importance of water: the storage, irrigation issues -- all of which we’re currently engaged in, in all the projects to try to advance irrigation. And we’ve also been working with the Ministry on their efforts to try to become a more efficient, effective Ministry. This has been an effort that the Afghans have essentially led, we are partners with them, and it has been good to see the cooperation between the various agencies of the U.S. Government. This is a government-wide effort and I think it is important for us to make sure the American people, in particular, understand and appreciate the progress that’s been made. There is still work to be done and that is one of the reasons we are encouraging more people from USDA to come here, to provide technical assistance and help in these areas. So, it’s been a very productive [inaudible] here.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, what are the biggest challenges you see here?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, let me start with the challenges the Minister himself identified. There is the challenge of water, the ability to conserve it and preserve it, the ability to avoid flooding that could make it more difficult to produce agricultural products. There is the issue of pre- and post-harvest loss as it relates to productivity, the capacity of us to help build the infrastructure that allows product to get from where it’s grown to where it’s needed.

I think it’s fair to say that the Afghan Government is interested. In my conversations with President Karzai yesterday and the Minister, the President reiterated the importance of exports. In order to have healthy exports, you obviously need the cooperation of your neighbors to be able to transport goods to where your customers are. There is the issue of natural resources. The deforestation that has occurred in this country raises a big, real challenge.

But, we’ve got innovative leaders -- the Governor is an innovative leader. He concluded, and I think he was right about this, that farmers needed to be encouraged to do the right thing. He came up an innovative program that we’re helping to administer, providing wheat seed and fertilizer, and the results have been very impressive: a reduction in poppy production and an increase in wheat. And with a little bit of help, eventually they become self-sufficient in wheat. And now the next step is to move to value-added products, the importance of building the infrastructure that allow fruits and nuts to be grown and exported. I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential here, but it is going to require a lot of work. It’s going to require a central government that’s, under the Minister’s leadership, fully engaged at the local level. And it’s going to require us to continue our efforts here.

QUESTION: You mentioned that you were looking to send more USDA staff to Afghanistan. How many more? Do you have any figures for the additional staff, experts that you’d like to send?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, we are obviously anxious to get the 64 individuals that we initially promised and pledged into the country and appropriately placed. My belief is that there is still more work to be done and we’ll obviously get a lot of information from those on the ground who [inaudible] tell us there’s a need for more people, and we then have to convince our friends and backers that this is a worthy investment. But, I would anticipate and expect our numbers to grow here. I think its fair to say -- and Mr. Minister, correct me if I’m wrong about this -- but I think there’s been a benefit to having USDA personnel in Afghanistan. And as long as we can partner with the country, as long as we can provide benefits, we will continue to do so.

QUESTION: Zalmay Khalilzad recently gave a talk back in D.C. He took the military to task about using its purchasing power to support agriculture here in Afghanistan. What’s your opinion on this matter -- not just the military, but the entire American presence in Afghanistan?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think Ambassador Eikenberry has suggested the importance of an “Afghan First” attitude. I think that’s appropriate. It’s a way in which we can provide help and assistance. I was just talking to the Marines here about how important it is to establish relationships. One way you establish relationships is by being able to support the businesses and the companies here that can provide services that are needed. So that seems that’s an appropriate and reasonable thing to do.

QUESTION: (in Dari, via translator) How do you see the new American forces? How do you see the situation changing?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think I’ve got to limit my comments to the additional forces from USDA, because that’s what I know. I think it’s important, as I said earlier, for us to continue to provide the Minister and the Governor and others the kind of assistance they believe is necessary to help grow and expand agriculture in [inaudible] areas. There is enormous potential here for us to stabilize the economy, to stabilize the country, and to grow confidence in the central government’s capacity to provide services through agriculture.

There is no question that this country is capable of growing and producing not only wheat itself, but fruits and vegetables and other products. They also have a tremendous livestock potential, as well. All of this is going to require work. It’s going to require technical assistance. It’s going to require growing the next generation of Afghan scientists and Afghan leaders who understand the importance and significance of agriculture and will understand the need to continue to promote technology and the use of science -- all of which the Minister’s laid out in a framework. I think it was a very important step for the government to establish the framework. It gave a consistency and allowed us to parallel our efforts. It was a very important first step and now we have to go [inaudible].

QUESTION: I just want to ask the Minister about one of the questions that’s been asked a lot, whether there is capacity in the Ministry to fulfill your new strategy. There have been a lot of questions here about whether you can attract enough experts in the provinces, for example. How do you plan to resolve that problem? What are you doing to ensure, for example, there isn’t a district agriculture [inaudible]?

MINISTER RAHIMI: One of the pillars in our framework is building capacity of the Ministry in the form of “change management,” to bring structural change to make the Ministry of Agriculture a modern institution to be able to respond to the needs of agriculture in this country. And of course that includes building capacity at the central level, as well as the sub-national levels, including the district level. So far in the “change management,” we have had some successes, both in terms of hiring new staff, training and building capacity of the existing staff, and encouraging international donor funding to increase the capacity. An example of that could be we have hired over 400 new graduates of agriculture to the ranks of the Ministry and sent them over to the various provinces. We have also hired another 100 staff, 100+ staff of management and administration, for the Ministry at the central and provincial level.

One of the challenges, though, is to get people out from the provinces to the district. We need to build the logistical capacities there: offices, electricity, motorbikes, bicycles, as well as to provide them some incentives in terms of [inaudible], allowances to ensure that they can have a decent living while they are away from their families.

QUESTION: How have you found being on the ground has helped you better understand the needs in Afghanistan?

SECRETARY VILSACK: The opportunity to visit Afghan farmers yesterday was good for me to be able to see that there is a connection between programs that are being discussed and frameworks they can be placed in discussed on paper and the reality in the field. [Inaudible] that you can now have the ability to box apples. It may seem like a small thing, but to a farmer who has been losing a substantial amount of his crop because it has not been properly stored and properly packaged, it’s the difference between making it and not. So, that has been important.

It’s also been important to continue my relationship with the Minister, which started several months ago in Washington. I promised him I would come here and here I am. I think it was important for me to have an opportunity to visit with President Karzai, as well, to get a sense of and understanding of how important he sees, the central government, sees agriculture. And, I think, frankly, it also has given me a better opportunity to understand the international nature of this. The United States is not obviously alone in this effort. We are partnering with a number of other nations and another of other donor nations. And it’s [inaudible].

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, wheat production is up and poppy production is down. But, I think [inaudible] part of that is because this region has produced so much poppy in the past few years that it’s lost its demand. What happens when demand goes back up for narcotics [inaudible]?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s an effort to continue to expand value-added in agriculture. The opportunity to grow nut trees, fruits, saffron, which we talked about earlier -- all of that has the potential to substantially exceed what the return will be for a hectare of poppy. By the numbers, table grapes, apples, almonds, pomegranates have greater value than a hectare of poppy. So I don’t think farmers are any different here than they are in the United States or anywhere else. If they can make more money producing something they’re able to produce, they’ll be anxious to produce it. That’s why what the Governor has done, has encouraged and incented in a different way, people are seeing the benefits of that. We just need to continue to do that and we need to transition away from the incentives to a place where it is self-sustaining.

Thank you.