May 24, 2010

This Weekend’s News: The Ag in Afghanistan

I don’t know about you, but my weekend RSS catch-up took me through approximately 9,000 pieces on the Gulf oil disaster. While that’s still obviously the biggest natural security story of the weekend, I’ll avoid pontificating on it yet again, as I assume it’s something you’re all caught up on.

I suggest instead that we take a moment to ponder the role of agriculture in Afghanistan given current operations. This is something we’ve covered regularly, and will a bit more heavily in an upcoming report on resources and security. Our colleague Nate Fick also highlighted agriculture as a “key business sector” in his recent CNAS policy brief with Clare Lockhart:

Promoting the growth of legiti­mate agriculture would have positive effects including providing jobs, encouraging economic growth, and slowing the drug trade as a major source of funding for the Taliban. Success in this sector may be achieved best through a National Agriculture Program that would focus on creating the value chain to form the right market linkages, appropriate marketing tools, access to credit, processing facilities, cold storage, irrigation and transportation. Such a program could be supported by a consortium of international inves­tors and a network of Afghan land-grant colleges with specialized agricultural knowledge.

Let’s look at a great piece in yesterday’s New York Times, “In Afghan Fields, a Challenge to Opium’s Luster.” Note that this report focuses on Marja, where blight and bad weather contributed to reduced yields of opium poppy and other crops this year. Results have been mixed for the U.S. program to pay farmers to plow under these crops rather than sell them. But there is one positive result of focusing on agriculture programs to diversify to more food crop farming that U.S. troops have measured there. According to reporter C. J. Chivers:

The more sure value of the program, many Marines said, was its role as a steppingstone. Until the program began, farmers were hesitant to meet with the Marines, officers said…But what began as a trickle of cooperative farmers, a few men registering each day, became a busy queue. By late April, as many as 120 farmers registered in a single day with the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, one of two infantry battalions in Marja.

“The program has helped us reseize the momentum,” said Maj. James F. Coffman, the senior civil affairs officer in the battalion. “The Taliban’s murder and intimidation program is still ongoing,” he added, but through the subsidies, groups of farmers have begun to meet and cooperate with the Americans and Afghan troops.

This kind of progress, I’d argue, makes the effort well worth it even if many farmers are still selling the opium they were paid to destroy.

However, moving further down the road of economic development via agriculture for Afghanistan will require that some of its worst underlying environmental conditions be treated. While our CNAS colleagues’ notion of increasing high-value crops is a great idea, most evidence I’ve seen indicates that the deforestation, soil erosion and degradation, and water mismanagement may be a roadblock for long-term (or even medium-term) success in this kind of endeavor. As my colleagues and I pointed out in our most recent report on climate change and security, we have a pressing need to assess these conditions and expected effects of the changing climate in Afghanistan to inform how we approach agricultural development there over the next few years as (hopefully) the country sees increasing stability.

And there is another prospect to be aware of: that rural areas, despite their importance with respect to terrorist and insurgent groups and their income bases, may not turn out to be as important for determining the future U.S. role in the region as other operations. As Karen DeYoung warned in yesterday’s Washington Post:

Although operations initiated last winter in southwestern Helmand province will continue, and new troop deployments are scheduled this year for northern and eastern Afghanistan, little else will matter if the news from Kandahar is not good.

On a separate note, through this week we will be picking apart and commenting on the National Defense Authorization Act as presented by the HASC. I wanted to chat with some Hill and Pentagon pals before saying much about it, but I think we’re ready to roll starting tomorrow.

The Week Ahead

Today, at 12:30pm, check out the Wilson Center for an event on US-Mexico Cooperation on Renewable Energy: Building a Green Agenda.

Tuesday marks the release of the EIA's International Energy Outlook 2010 as well as CSIS' event on the report, beginning at 10:30am, featuring a presentation by EIA Deputy Administrator, Howard Gruenspecht. Later on at noon, the Institute for Policy Studies will be hosting a brown bag discussion over The Perils of Extreme Energy. If you're still up for some more energy fun on Tuesday, beginning at 4:30pm, SAIS will be holding a discussion about The Emergence of Multi-Polar Asia: Implications for Security, Economy and Energy.

Wednesday will feature the first of two hearings from the House Committee on Natural Resources over the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Strategy and Implications of the Deepwater Horizon Rig Explosion, set to begin at 10:00am. 

On Thursday you can catch the follow up to Wednesday's House Committee on Natural Resources hearing over self and oil strategy and the Gulf oil spill, again at 10:00am. At 2:00pm, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce will discuss the topic of combating the BP oil spill.