After security, U.S. officials say the top priority in Afghanistan is rebuilding the country's agriculture sector.
U.S. agriculture aid will offer Afghan farmers alternatives to illegal opium poppies.
The influx of farming aid and experts is expected to be a significant part of the Obama administration's "civilian surge" accompanying the additional U.S. and allied military forces now flowing into Afghanistan.
Tom Vilsack, U.S. agriculture secretary, recently spent several days in Afghanistan meeting with leaders and farmers. In a news conference before his trip, he explained that agriculture will play a central role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
"Eighty percent of Afghans earn their income from agriculture," he said. "Thirty-five percent of the Afghan GDP (gross domestic product) comes from agriculture. Fifty percent of their arable land is currently under cultivation. So there is a tremendous opportunity," Vilsack says.
Growing agriculture will lead to jobs and stability
He also says that boosting agriculture will provide jobs and income in a country where rural unemployment can reach 40 percent. The secretary announced a $20 million fund to support the Afghan agriculture ministry's reconstruction work. By backing Afghan-led efforts, the Obama administration says it hopes to help stabilize the country by raising the profile of the central government and boosting public confidence in it.
Supporting agricultural development across the country is a departure from the approach under the Bush administration, according to Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group.
"The focus on agriculture was relatively minimal, except for counter-narcotics related [activities]," he says.
Schneider says most of the agriculture aid used to concentrate on farmers in the south, offering them alternatives to illegal opium poppies and eradicating the crops of those who persisted in growing them. That policy was deeply unpopular.
The challenge of competing with opium poppies
During a telephone news conference from Afghanistan, Vilsack acknowledged it's hard for legal crops to compete with poppies.
"One of the advantages, if you will, of poppy production in this country is that those who deal in poppy are able to advance the cost of the inputs. In other words, they extend credit," he said. "They also pick up the product at the farm gate. And so, we have to come up with a competing vision that's far more compelling," he says.
Vilsack says he knows that will be a challenge. In addition to helping farmers with credit, he says reconstruction efforts must rebuild the country's irrigation and transportation systems, shattered by decades of conflict, and connect farmers with markets for their products.
Vilsack adds that the U.S. will assist in these areas, and is sending more experts to help farmers across Afghanistan choose the best crops and improve their yields. And he points to some successful programs in the poppy-growing province of Helmand that have encouraged farmers to grow wheat, grapes, apples and other crops.
Experts applaud the Obama administration's goal of bolstering Afghan agriculture, but they caution that the new investments will take time to have an impact. Meanwhile, the demand for opium poppies and the Taliban insurgency continue.