A high-stakes bid for Afghan hearts

The US has pledged more than $300 million in development over the next year in Helmand Province. Success could sway farmers at the center of both the insurgency and the opium trade.

Julie Jacobson/ap
US Marine Sgt. Monica Perez helps Lance Cpl. Mary Shloss put on a scarf before heading out on patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The two are members of a team built to engage with local women.

First came the Marines, then came the promises. Over the next year, the US is pledging an economic makeover costing more than $300 million for Afghanistan's war-torn Helmand Province.

But Afghans have grown cynical about foreign talk of development. Just as the Marines had to prove they could retake territory with minimal civilian casualties – which they did in an offensive in the southern province during the summer – the development community has a more difficult point to prove to ordinary Afghans: Siding with the government brings prosperity.

The American foreign assistance arm, USAID, says that within 12 months Helmand residents will see: a doubling of local hydropower, wheat seeds for more than 35,000 farmers, saplings for 1,000 hectares of orchards and vineyards, a new courthouse, new district police substations, jobs for 166,000 men fixing roads and irrigation ditches, and a new road linking the capital to the national ring road. The biggest goodie of all: an industrial park with space for agricultural factories and an airstrip.

If it sounds like a last-ditch effort, it is. Success would win over the farmers in the heartland of the insurgency and at the center of poppy cultivation, and demonstrate a formula for holding ground in Afghanistan. Failure – given the high-profile nature of this mission – could lose Afghans for good and dishearten Western publics about the prospects of the war.

"We made a lot of mistakes at this point and our credibility isn't very high," says David Garner, an aid expert who has worked for years in Afghanistan. "If you've got a strategy in your back pocket that you can deploy immediately and that project is grounded in agricultural realities ... then over a period of 12 months you could have a pretty significant impact in terms of getting people's attention. But the opportunities for recidivism here are significant."

The level of violence seen leading up to and during the Aug. 20 presidential election may sow some doubt about how safe it is to cooperate with Americans on rebuilding projects. And quick deployment will be tough in the areas recently retaken. Despite arriving in early July, it's not until late August that the Marines expect to begin expanding beyond their bases, says Rory Donohoe, director of USAID's Alternative Livelihood programs in southern Afghanistan.

"I can take a USAID worker and put him in an MRAP [armored vehicle] and go anywhere, but it's really the Afghan civilian officials that matter – their freedom of movement," says Mr. Donohoe, who is based in Helmand. The safety radius for those Afghan officials is now limited to about 1,000 feet from the bases – a distance that security forces will now start pushing outward. "We can't build a school if we don't have a Ministry of Education representative in there, and if he cannot leave the forward operating base, we are not there yet," says Donohoe.

However, some quick-hit projects have been accomplished, like the construction of a polling station and small rehabilitation projects in a local bazaar. The vast majority of the development projects USAID hopes to complete within a year will fall in central Helmand – the region around the provincial capital that had been under partial government control before this summer's Marine offensive. Many were under way long before the offensive. The newly retaken areas to the south will receive the wheat seeds, a program started last year and coordinated by the British.

But the seed program meets skepticism from aid experts. "There are really lousy secondary roads all under control of the Taliban but you have to go to the district center from where you live" to get the seeds and sell the crop, says one critic. The Taliban, she points out, have turned poppy cultivation into a very successful jobs program. They have middlemen who go out to farmers with high-value seeds, high-tech expertise on growing practices, and loans; at harvesttime, they collect the harvest to send it to processing plants and trade it on an international market.

Agricultural development experts urge this sort of integrated farm-to-market approach, with more focus on developing farmers' regional, even international, markets and manufacturing options. And that strategy can't depend on a single crop. Simply giving farmers seeds to plant to replace poppies can result in overproduction of a crop that has limited market demand.

"When everyone grows exactly the same thing, the price drops," says Allison Brown, an agricultural marketing consultant with experience in Afghanistan. "There's nothing wrong with wheat, it's just that a monoculture is not a good idea." Donohoe says USAID pushes diversification, but but wheat is one of the few viable crops grown during the same season as poppy. Other crops that experts say could be profitable include fruits and vegetables, if cold-storage facilities or juicing plants are built; rapeseed, if a seed press is built; melons, if cargo flights for export to the Middle East are subsidized; and cotton, if a nearby cotton gin is rehabilitated.

Just about every crop could become more profitable if farmers had better roads and safe passage. Ms. Brown would pour the $300 million into those two problems first.

USAID is building one road that should help expand the market reach for Helmand farmers. And USAID envisions the industrial park becoming a center for new agricultural factories and links to national and international markets. Construction is now under way, and more than 30 Afghans are on a list of interested industrialists. The anchor tenant, says Donohoe, is an Afghan building a processing plant that turns crops into cooking oil.

While the US wants to win over the residents of Helmand quickly, not every observer thinks it's wise to raise expectations at the outset.

"A good rule in Afghanistan is to create low expectations and do unexpectedly well in meeting them," says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at Australian National University. "When Australian aid people come to me, the first thing I say to them is never make a promise on anything to anyone in Afghanistan unless you already have in hand all the resources that are required."

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