REBECCA ROBERTS, Host:
Mohammad Asif Rahimi is the minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock in Afghanistan, and he had some clear goals for his visit.
M: Four points: point number one, we would like to achieve that the U.S. government support Afghanistan national agriculture programs, not small components of that program. The second, Afghanistan agriculture development is a national agenda, we would like the U.S. government to support agriculture nationwide, not only in one or two regions of the country. The third point is that agriculture is a long-term development, sustainable development agenda. Any short-term stabilization program important for agriculture but not solve sustainable agriculture development. The fourth agenda that we would like to speed delivery of agriculture development from the U.S. government side.
ROBERTS: And Secretary Vilsack, how does the U.S. agenda match up with the Afghan?
ROBERTS: Well, it matches up very well. First of all, this is an Afghan-led effort and we're responding to what the minister's needs are. We're trying to provide technical assistance in his ministry as he rebuilds and constructs a ministry that's capable of assisting Afghan farmers throughout the country. We're trying to create, with his assistance and direction, a credit system that will be functional so that farmers will be able to access the credit they need to put crops into the ground, so that they have a more lucrative alternative to poppy production.
ROBERTS: So, it's not just that poppy and the opium made from it is the most profitable crop but also that...
ROBERTS: Actually, it's not the most profitable crop.
ROBERTS: What is?
ROBERTS: Well, table grapes are in some cases perhaps four and five times more valuable than poppy. Saffron, almonds, pomegranates, a number of fruits are significantly more profitable. What we have to do is we have to establish that the reward of putting those crops in the ground is greater and the risk is equal to or less than poppy production.
ROBERTS: And Minister Rahimi, back in January, the U.S. government pledged up to $20 million to shore up your efforts. How much of that has been received so far and how are you feeling about the progress of using it?
M: The new deadline that we have is by June 2010, the capacity building amount of $20 million, which was topped out now, goes to $38 million, should flow into the minister of agriculture.
ROBERTS: And there have been widespread reports that money doesn't always get where it needs to go. There are corruption issues, there are distribution issues. What are you doing to make sure that it goes where it's intended?
M: So, I believe that with these measures that we have taken, we may assure that the funds will go to the intended clients.
ROBERTS: You've said, Secretary Vilsack, that agriculture is the number one non-security priority in Afghanistan. But when you talk about increasing the productivity of Afghan farmers and ultimately maybe years down the road creating an export market, the biggest hurdle to that has to be security, right? It's not just a teaching and resources issue.
ROBERTS: That requires greater productivity. It requires irrigation systems, as the minister indicated. It requires storage facilities. It requires rules and regulations and laws that allow for markets to be created, for markets to be secure, for them to be honest. It requires trading agreements with neighboring countries to be able to transport goods through and over and around countries where the export markets are. It requires a credit system. It is an enormous undertaking.
ROBERTS: And Minister Rahimi, how would you characterize the challenges of security in achieving those four goals you laid out at the outset?
M: To us, agriculture growth means employment and employment means security. They're so much related to each other. In places where the military operates, if you do not offer people the future, just by military means security and stability will be a very far-reaching dream. So, therefore, what we are doing in Helmand and will be doing soon in Kandahar is to build our capacities, not only in the ministry of agriculture but also other ministries who provide services like health and education and others, as a whole of government approach to establish ourselves back to the districts and the villages and places so that we provide an alternative to what the Talibans were offering to people, which are more livelihood and security and education and health and also a better and more secure future.
ROBERTS: And when you talk to farmers and try to gauge their needs and get their cooperation, do you feel that they feel safe talking to you?
M: This is extremely important that we now ask our international friends to put their resources behind our priorities and let us set the policies and deliver services.
ROBERTS: That was Afghanistan's minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, Mohammad Asif Rahimi, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. I spoke with them at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
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