Briefing on Recent Trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan

Special Briefing
Richard Holbrooke
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Washington, DC
February 3, 2010

MR. CROWLEY: All right. Now we know who the intrepid journalists are that get up at 9:45 in the morning at an unheard-of hour in your profession, but good morning and welcome to the Department of State.

We had promised last month when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited with you prior to his trip to Afghanistan that we would bring him back to report on what he’s seen and the progress in developing, redeveloping the agricultural sector of Afghanistan as a critical part of the Administration’s strategy and President Karzai’s strategy for the future of that country. So we have him back with us today along with our Special Representative, the intrepid and indomitable Richard Holbrooke, who is going to start and just kind of put the agriculture strategy and the over all strategy in context first.


AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Thanks, P.J. Well, this is really the Secretary of Agriculture’s chance, as we promised you, to report on this trip and I just want to give you the overarching view of it. But before I do that, I just want to say a word about the events in Pakistan this morning.

As I’m sure you all know, three Americans were killed, two wounded, not life-threatening. They’ve been evacuated to Islamabad. They were two military and one from the (inaudible) team, so three military. They were on their way to the inauguration of a girls school in the western area of Pakistan – obviously, a great tragedy, and we are deeply regretful of the loss of life and we are in contact with the Embassy. I talked to Ambassador Patterson this morning on it and it was an – it was a mine, an IED that did the – that did it. And I just want to let you know about that. And --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, you said it was two military and one?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Three military; I misspoke – three military from two different parts of the military advisory groups that we have in Islamabad. And I don’t even know the exact designations of where they were – thank you – American military personnel in Pakistan who were doing training with the frontier corps. So it’s a very sad event.

QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke, is there any indication that they were directly targeted?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The ambassador does not think they were directly targeted, but that is my only source of information on that question.

QUESTION: Has there been any claim of responsibility?


QUESTION: Pardon me, the Taliban has claimed responsibility for this attack.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Have they already claimed it? Well, then you’re ahead of me.

QUESTION: They also suggested that they weren’t U.S. military, but in fact were Blackwater contractors. Does this suggest that perhaps the U.S. needs to do more in terms of making it clear when the military is the – taking the lead on operations and when contractors are in the lead?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: They’re certain to say that. That’s what they do. They’re adept at propaganda and disinformation. But the facts are the facts and when – and in the appropriate moment, after notification of next of kin and appropriate things, I’m sure their names and their exact rank will be publicly disclosed, as we always do. There’s nothing secret about their presence there.

QUESTION: Just to clarify again, then, three were killed who were members of the military?


QUESTION: And – who were members of the military or not?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I think the two injured were also military; is that right – yeah.

QUESTION: So five members of the military – three killed, two injured?



AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Yeah. This was in Lower Dir. And I do think it’s very revealing that they were on their way to the inauguration of a school. That’s what Americans do. It was a girls school. That’s what Americans try to do. And it’s – ever since I joined the Foreign Service, we’ve had people who have given their lives in these – in the cause that we believe in.

And that’s a very good segue into Secretary Vilsack, because one of the most moving moments of his trip, which he will describe with you, was setting up a memorial to a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was killed. This trip represents a very big step forward in the furtherance of what is our number-one “non-security” priority in Afghanistan. And when I say “non-security,” I want to put that in quote marks, because of course, agriculture and security are integrally related in a country which is 80 percent agricultural.

Our goal is nothing less than to help Afghanistan restore its agricultural sector to the vibrant export economy that it once had, and which was progressively destroyed starting in 1978. That this wasn’t undertaken earlier remains a mystery to all of us, but we elevated agriculture to the top of our priority list, as you all know, and it’s U.S. support for poppy eradication. The Secretary will speak about the relationship between those two items in a minute.

Secretary Clinton and I are enormously grateful that Secretary Vilsack took the time from a very demanding schedule to make this trip. There will be more efforts. He will outline some of the goals. One of the most important we have for this year is to help the Afghans stand up the agricultural credit bank, an institution which was created in the 1960s and destroyed in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. But I will leave the rest of it to the Secretary and with my appreciation, again, Tom. Thank you for doing this.

SECRETARY VILSACK: You bet. Good morning to everyone. I want to thank the Ambassador for the opportunity to spend a few days in Afghanistan. There is so much written about Afghanistan that is focused on sort of the negative aspects of the challenges in Afghanistan that hopefully, this is a report that reflects on what’s happening in a positive way.

The purpose of the trip was to spend a good deal of time with Minister Rahimi, who is the agricultural minister, in an effort to determine whether or not progress is being made in Afghanistan. As the Ambassador indicated, this is our number-one priority from a non-security standpoint. And it is very clear that agriculture is critical to the future success of Afghanistan. Eighty percent of Afghans either make their living or their livelihoods from agriculture or something connected to agriculture. So it is important and relevant for this country to spend time and resources to try to help the Afghan agricultural opportunity.

I want to say that we see this in the context of an Afghan-led effort. It is important and necessary for us to know precisely what the Afghans expect and want, and for us to parallel our efforts and to cooperate with them. So we were very pleased with Minister Rahimi after he was confirmed as an initial member of President Karzai’s cabinet, that he laid forward a framework for progress in Afghan agriculture. And it is an important framework.

Most importantly of all of the four, in my view, is the need to increase productivity among the Afghans. I think he recognizes and appreciates that there is tremendous opportunity, but it is necessary for the Afghan agriculture to take a step forward in terms of productivity. And we saw examples of U.S. assistance in that regard. I met with U.S. ag representatives who were working with grape farmers, for example, in Afghanistan, who are working on trestling – very rudimentary steps that are significantly increasing the size of the grapes and the quantity and quality of grapes. This is important because, at one point in time, Afghan grapes were really sought after in the Asian market. And this represents a tremendous export opportunity and potential.

The second aspect, once productivity is increased, is 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. Probably the most significant step that has been taken recently is the establishment of a juice factory in Kabul. This juice factory essentially takes apples and pomegranates on contracts with farmers. Over 50,000 farmers contract with this particular juice factory. They take the fruit and they basically create juice concentrate, which is then exported all over the world. It employs 300 people for nine months, and they have a vision of expanding this facility, with the assistance of USAID and USDA, to a place where individual juice cartons can be developed for the Afghan market itself, which could be a hundred million dollar market.

This was a very interesting opportunity for me to also meet with the Afghan farmers who are currently contracting with this juice factory. They like the idea that they’ve got forward contracting opportunities. They like the idea that they have already essentially pre-sold their crop for the next several years.

It was an interesting opportunity for me to talk to Afghan farmers and to realize that farmers in Afghanistan aren’t a whole lot different than farmers in America. When we had the opportunity to visit with these folks, one of the Afghan farmers said, “You’re not doing enough. You’re not doing enough. You never help us.” And I turned around and I said, “This factory right here, right behind, me,” I said, “We just helped build that, and that factory is buying your fruit.” And he goes, “Oh. Oh. Yeah, I guess that is help.” (Laughter.)You know, things – some things aren’t different. You have to sometimes point things out to folks.

But there was, I think, a recognition and understanding that the government was attempting to create opportunities for these Afghan farmers. And reinvigorating their agribusiness is an important component of the strategy.

The third strategy has to do with a commitment to renew their natural resources. For far too long, they have been in a deforestation mode. Millions of trees have been cut down in Afghanistan. That impacts not just the Afghan landscape but it also impacts the capacity to preserve and conserve water, which is an extraordinarily important component to agriculture, obviously.

I met with USDA and representatives there who were working with Afghan youth to plant thousands and thousands, tens of thousands, of trees in the northern part of the country, recognizing the importance of restoring those natural resources.

And finally, the last piece of their framework is a reflection of the need to bolster the ministry itself. Minister Rahimi understands and appreciates that there are some serious challenges within the structure of his ministry, and so he has embarked on a change management effort, which we are facilitating. During the course of my visit, we made an announcement of an additional $20 million of assistance and help as part of that change management effort. We are also detailing specific experts in specific areas of this framework to work with the minister in the capital, in the ministry, so that he is more free, or freer, to travel around the country to talk to his farmers. We saw in Helmand province a tremendous example of the importance of his getting out and visiting with Afghan farmers. This was a very significant visit, a visit to a part of the country that a year ago may not have been possible.

But we spoke with Afghan farmers who are now planting wheat instead of poppy, and the reason they’re doing that is because, with the assistance of the United States Government, the Afghan Government is providing incentives for wheat production. And I think it’s important to recognize that when Afghan farmers make the decision to produce poppy, they do so because there are certain incentives built into that crop. The incentives involve providing input costs in advance and delivery of the crop at the farm gate. And so the challenge for the Afghan and for us is to figure out strategies and structures that will replace those incentives for legitimate crops. And so when we provided wheat seed and fertilizer at substantially reduced cost, Afghan farmers responded and poppy production in that province was reduced by a third in a single year. Now, we want to work with those same farmers to diversify their crop, to focus not just on staple crops but also cash crops, which will create export opportunities.

There are several challenges that will need to be addressed. The Ambassador focused on one of them, which is very significant: the need to establish a formalized credit process. That will take, obviously, time, but it is clear that they need some kind of credit bank, long-term financing and structure that will guarantee Afghan farmers the capacity and the resources to put the crop in the ground. In the meantime, we’ll continue to work with vouchers and other smaller techniques to encourage crop production. We’ll need to continue to work in a very formalized way to help them with irrigation issues. Their irrigation systems were destroyed during the conflicts – the previous conflicts. And we’re in the process of focusing on farm and regional water issues and irrigation issues. We’ll continue to work hard to create an extension presence.

I think one of the challenges that we identified and that Minister Rahimi identified was the fact that there needs to be people on the ground, Afghans on the ground providing technical assistance and help. And I think that was underscored in our visit to Nawa, where folks basically said we need more people on the ground here helping us make decisions. They’re very favorably inclined towards our extension model that we have in the United States and which we often take for granted, the capacity to get technical assistance to the farmer on the farm. And I think there are also challenges with reference to trade, the need for a continued promotion of trade opportunities in all parts of Central Asia.

I will tell you that I was impressed with the commitment of the people from the USDA. The Ambassador mentioned the memorial service we had for Tom Stefani. Tom was a forester who was killed in Afghanistan as a result of an explosive device. His only goal there was to try to make a difference. His only goal was to try to help people understand the importance of trees and forestry. He was beloved by the people who were there. We had a substantial outpouring of support for the award that we have established in his name to reflect that it – that there 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. And we are extraordinarily proud of our USDA presence there, which will grow over the course of time. We anticipate by the end of this month to have as many as 64 USDA workers there. And as the process ramps us, we would expect and hope that we would be able to contribute more. It is important for us to parallel our increase commitment with an Afghan – an increased Afghan commitment.

I would also say, and the last thing I’ll say, is that I’ve been very impressed with Minister Rahimi and his commitment. When he was addressing the parliament just before his confirmation, he said two things which I think are really important. One is that he said he would always tell the truth even if it was a hard truth. I saw examples of that where he acknowledged publicly the weaknesses and challenges of his ministry. That’s not often – you don’t often see that. He also said he would root out corruption, and I believe that he is true to that as well. He understands that there is a limited period of time in which this has to work, and he is committed to making it happen.

So with that, I’d be glad to try to respond to questions. Yes.

QUESTION: I’m Sue Pleming from Reuters. How big a role is agriculture going to play in the reintegration plan and what – seeing as agriculture is the key, sort of industry, for most Afghans? And what sort of money are you setting aside from that? And just if I might ask, is there any movement on the trade transit agreement with Pakistan, because that’s key in terms of opening up markets with India?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I’ll let the Ambassador respond to the trade issue because he’s probably got more up-to-date information on that than I do.

I think it’s fair to say, when 80 percent of the Afghan livelihood and income is connected in some form to agriculture, that the key strategy to getting stability within the economy is a strong and strengthened agriculture. That involves farmers being encouraged to produce the right kind of crops and a diversification of those crops, not just focusing on staple crops but also cash crops.

And we showed a chart which was I think very instructive. As you know, the value of some of those additional cash crops can be substantially higher than poppy and opium production. And so that’s the first step.

The second step – and in doing that, you have to recognize the challenges that these farmers face, whether it’s irrigation or storage facilities and things of that nature, which is why we have people on the ground trying to respond to those individual challenges.

It’s also important to set up the supply chain, which is why reinvigorating agribusiness becomes so important. There has to be a market. And that market has to be facilitated, whether it’s domestic or foreign. And I think it’s important and necessary for Minister Rahimi in particular to focus on those two issues and then be able to go out into the countryside and show examples of where this has worked. This is a big country, pockets of farmers in a variety of different locations. It’s not necessarily true that they understand or appreciate that the juice factory’s been set up and that there are markets for thousands of farmers. They may not know about the progress that’s been made in Helmand province in terms of cash and staple crops. And so it’s important for us to get people in the ministry that will free up the ministry to be able to go out talk about progress and --

QUESTION: But how many agriculture jobs do you think you might be able to create to help with the reintegration?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, it’s – if you look at the juice factory that’s an example. You’ve got 300 jobs now and they’re just getting started. If they can tap that hundred million dollar market of individual juice containers for Afghans, I mean, the sky’s the limit. I mean, when you talk about storage facilities, processing facilities, warehousing facilities, the sky’s the limit. And then when you open up trade opportunities, then there is the whole series of transportation jobs, marketing jobs, regulatory structures. I mean, it’s virtually unlimited, which is why it’s important.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: We have – your question’s very important. The reintegration program is separate.


AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: But in my view, this program is a reintegration program, but we’re not going to call it that. This is a rebuilding agriculture program. But if it works, we will help the Afghans create a very large number of jobs.

We had a rough estimate last year that there was a potential to create a million jobs, but it’s so rough that it would be misleading to turn that into a hard headline. But if the agricultural export markets open up, if it creates all the secondary jobs on markets and road building and so on, as the Secretary said, the sky seems to be the limit. Of all the programs the United States is supporting in Afghanistan in the year since this Administration took over, this has been the most popular, and it has the highest and quickest impact. And it is also the one most enthusiastically supported by General McChrystal and his people who are spending an enormous amount of additional money through CERP to support agriculture.

In fact, there was even a creative tension here about whether you want the CERP money to immediately give out seed or whether you want to distribute seed through the existing system. It’s been – Joe Klein wrote a cover story for Time magazine which discussed that issue and – back about 10 months ago, and the issue he identified is there. So – plus the Indians have a large agricultural program, the Japanese are upgrading, the EU is upgrading. This is a big push. And I’m very glad you asked the question because people rarely make the connection, but of course there’s a connection. It is classic counterinsurgency. It’s a good in its own right. It’s going to help deny the Taliban a pool of alienated, unemployed youths who go out and get paid to shoot. If there’s a family plot, family pressures will be that they work on the farms, at least during the appropriate seasons. So it’s enormously important.

On trade transit, the negotiations are continuing. There was another round recently. Secretary Clinton and I talked about this last night. It’s – we’re down to just one or two issues, but they’re very complicated. And they involve the equities and politics of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I’m not up to speed on the exact standing today, so I’d rather not get into the details. But we are continuing to work on this very actively, and it was a subject of discussion in London also.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I pick up on --

QUESTION: Is there another round planned, though? The last round you’re referring to was in Dubai, I think. Is this another round planned after that?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: Yes, but I don’t have the date yet.

QUESTION: Can I pick up on what Sue’s first --

QUESTION: As a follow-up to – as a follow-up to the previous answer, is there any pushback yet from the Taliban on these programs that you’re doing? Have you seen that yet, or how much do you expect to --

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: They are preemptively attacking the reintegration program. They started before London. I think they’re clearly rattled by it. It poses a direct threat to them and they know it, and that, I think, you can see if you read the reports. On agriculture, I don’t think they’ve attacked agriculture directly because that would be – that would not be a very popular move, but I may be wrong on that.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, I was just going to add that there was an interesting conversation we had with some of the local officials in Nawa. The difference in – between Marine presence and Taliban presence in that area – the local leaders suggested that when the Taliban had control, there was forced labor. They would extract youngsters and make them work. When the Marines came in, the Marines were not interested in forcing anything. They were interested in assisting and helping. And in fact, that’s precisely what they’re doing.

In addition to the USDA presence in agriculture, we also have these enormously important and popular agriculture development teams within our National Guard units that are working extremely hard to provide assistance and help. So I think we’re putting a different face on this. And I think with the response to the challenges and the incentives that are inherent in the poppy production, I think the Afghans are finally seeing that there is a strategy that gets them to producing legitimate crops and crops that can actually be far more profitable for Afghans than poppy production. So I think this is going to be a very – a successful first step.

QUESTION: On the link between – that Sue mentioned or – and that Ambassador Holbrooke did as well – between the reintegration program and the importance of agriculture there, I mean, where do you expect most of the success to come from? Do you expect it to be drying up of this pool that you mentioned, or is it – are you hoping that hard-core Taliban now will, you know, be beating their IEDs and AKs into plowshares? Where does it come from?


QUESTION: Is it the disaffected youth who are just – who are not going to join in the first place because they’re going to – they might have a job? Or is it the existing bad guys who are (inaudible)?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, 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.

This is an economic issue. These people are making a very rational decision. And when we come with a credit system, when we come with a supply chain and reinvigorated agribusiness, and we come with incentives to encourage them to plant different crops and we provide assistance to make those crops more productive, all of a sudden, they see the potential to make far more money. And they’re more inclined to make that choice and reject the Taliban, so the Taliban have no place to go.

QUESTION: So you’re not hoping, then, that this going to convert hard-core fighters? It’s more the --

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: The goal is not to convert hard-core leadership, but it --

QUESTION: Can you go up to the podium?

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: I’m sorry. The – this is such an important issue and I’m really glad you raised it. Helping in agriculture is a good in itself, but it’s also a core part of a coherent counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. And I’m sorry Stan McChrystal isn’t here to join us at the podium, but I can assure you that if he were in this country, he would want to be here, because he believes this as deeply as anyone, and I know you talked to the ISAF command about this.

This – if this program succeeds – and it is right now our most successful civilian program already, and it just started – this is going to really hurt the Taliban, no question about it. But unlike, say, reintegration, which they can attack, it’s harder to attack this one because the country is an agricultural country. And how do you attack programs which give people seed and fertilizer and market access?

And so this is why we are back at the podium for the second time in a month and why I hope Secretary Vilsack will be able to continue bringing public attention to this. And this is why we’re trying to stand up the ag credit bank, which the Secretary can explain better than I is indispensible. Is this going to take the leaders of the supreme shura and bring them around? Of course not. It’s going to isolate them more. It will – in the classic parlance, it will dry up the swamp.

SECRETARY VILSACK: To put a phrase on it, from my discussions with regular Afghans, I think they would much rather be farmers than fighters.

MR. CROWLEY: We have time for just about one more. The Secretary’s got to go to the White House.

QUESTION: Okay. Do you have full confidence in national government to deliver the key help and resources and everything that you give them to give the Afghan farmers? Or you rather just deal with the farmers through the councils directly with them? Because this is a huge issue for the farmers themselves.

SECRETARY VILSACK: I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think you have to have both. I think you have to have a functioning ministry and a national government that’s committed to this, and I got the sense that from my discussions with President Karzai, Minister Rahimi, and other ministers that there is indeed a recognition of the importance of the framework, a commitment to the framework, and a willingness to work within the framework.

I think Minister Rahimi would – if he were here, would also recognize that it won’t work unless you’ve got folks on the ground working with the Afghan farmers on a daily basis, providing the technical assistance and help that they need to become more productive, to establish storage facilities, to deal with irrigation challenges, and to understand these new credit opportunities that we’re going to try to create. So it’s not an either/or situation. You have to have both, which I think the framework that the ministers put forward recognizes that. It is very comprehensive and it’s very well thought out.

Now what he needs is the capacity in the ministry that will allow him to go outside, visit with Afghan farmers on the ground, and basically say this is what we’re doing for you, this is where it’s been successful, this is what it could do for you if you have not yet implemented this, this is what we’re working on.

The politics of agriculture, I think, are extremely important here. And he just hasn’t, flat out, had the time to commit to the politics of it. And our hope is that by the support and assistance that we’re providing, that he will feel more comfortable to do that.

MR. CROWLEY: Courtney. Last one, very quick.

QUESTION: For Secretary Vilsack, do you have a monetary value of how much the U.S. is putting into these incentives for Afghan farmers?

And then if I could just ask Ambassador Holbrooke also to just give a little bit more clarity on your comments about the Taliban preemptively attacking reintegration. Can you give us some specific examples of those attacks you’re referring to?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Yeah. I’d love to be able to give you specific dollar-and-cents amounts, but there are various pockets of money and it’s pretty hard to sort of – I know that our piece of it is a relatively small piece in terms of the hundreds of millions of dollars that are dedicated to this. But I would say it’s clearly hundreds of millions of dollars, not necessarily in incentives, but in the entire effort to sort of parallel the Afghan framework, whether it’s providing technical assistance, whether it’s providing resources, whether it’s supplies – things of that nature.

AMBASSADOR HOLBROOKE: In the interest of time, let me just – we’ll give you some of the things they’ve been saying publicly later, okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you very much.

PRN: 2010/136