KABUL Rebuilding agriculture can boost confidence in Afghanistan's fragile government and pull farmers away from the drug money that fuels the Taliban insurgency, the U.S. agriculture chief said on Sunday.
The Obama administration sees agriculture as the biggest non-security priority in Afghanistan, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who arrived in Kabul on Sunday for a three-day trip aimed at showing U.S. commitment to the sector.
"Agriculture is at a critical intersection in our efforts to try to stabilise Afghanistan. If we are able to assist them in doing that, it also builds confidence in their government," Vilsack told reporters.
With 80 percent of income generated from agriculture and only half of the country's arable land currently used, Vilsack said there was "tremendous upside" although he conceded the challenges were huge.
The hope is that opium farmers who get cash from the Taliban for their crops will be enticed by high-value products such as growing table grapes, nuts and pomegranates, which could then be exported.
"If we can do that and when we do that, we make it far more difficult for those who create trouble and difficulty both for the central government in Afghanistan and for the region and the world," he said.
U.S. estimates showed an Afghan farmer made about $2,500 per hectare from the sale of poppies but the same amount of land devoted to pomegranates could pull in about $12,000, he said.
The Bush administration encouraged poppy eradication in Afghanistan, the world's biggest supplier of the source material for heroin, but the Obama White House has played down that strategy, saying all it did was alienate farmers without offering alternatives to growing illicit crops.
One stumbling block is poor credit facilities for farmers, and Vilsack said he would discuss this with Afghan Agriculture Minister Asif Rahimi.
"One of the advantages that the Taliban has in making the case to Afghan farmers is that they are capable of producing the cash.... We have got to be able to counter that and that requires some kind of credit system," he said.
The United States offers farmers low-interest loans and other incentives and Vilsack said he would discuss how tactics successful in his country could be adapted to Afghanistan.
"It was not that long ago that we had similar issues with American farmers and maybe they can learn from the evolution of our system," he added.
Rebuilding agriculture in Afghanistan is one component of President Barack Obama's strategy for defeating the resurgent Taliban, part of a "civilian surge" alongside the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops which he announced last month.
Even if the United States does help get high-value farming projects off the ground, and improved credit facilities, the reality is that it will still be hard to get goods to market during wartime and due to dilapidated infrastructure.
By next month, the United States hopes to have about 100 agriculture experts in place, working on projects from livestock and boosting crop yields to rehabilitating degraded orchards and fixing eroded river banks and canals.
U.S. funding in 2009 for agriculture was modest at about $300 million, with projected spending for 2010 about $425 million. This does not include funds drawn from an account run by the Defence Department.
While in Kabul, Vilsack plans to see Afghan President Hamid Karzai and will also see several agricultural projects.
(Reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by Nick Macfie)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, click here)