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US Aid Official: Afghan Economy Beginning to Recover

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development says the economy in Afghanistan is beginning to show signs of recovery.

USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios says assistance agencies and donor nations are making progress in their efforts to rebuilt Afghanistan. But humanitarian aid, he says, remains the immediate priority.

"We want to avoid any loss of life from the winter, which is extremely frigid, with people who have just come back from refugee camps and have no means of supporting themselves," he said. "So there is a humanitarian relief component to the reconstruction which needs to continue until people are self-supporting."

Mr. Natsios says reconstructing Afghanistan's infrastructure, reviving the economy and helping to prepare the nation for elections in a year-and-half top the list of priorities. These are formidable challenges in a nation that has been torn apart by more than two decades of invasion, civil war and Taleban rule. Still, the USAID head says the effort is moving forward every day as hospitals reopen, road work proceeds and water and irrigation systems start to function.

"A lot of those things you cannot see. You cannot see the animals being imported that are immunized," he said. "You can see the wheat fields, but you cannot tell which is a wheatfield of ours versus the traditional seed. But we do know that food security is dramatically improved as a result of the last harvest, markets are beginning to function again in the rural areas. Life is going to take a few years to return to normal but the economy is beginning to come back and if we can get the irrigation systems back on line the country will become more prosperous than it has been in a couple of decades."

Since the reconstruction effort got underway, Mr. Natsios says a telecommunications systems has been installed in government offices, training programs have begun for teachers and government auditors and accountants, and schools have opened, attracting far more students than anticipated.

"We printed ten million textbooks for the opening of school in March. Ten Afghan educators, 6 men and 4 women, read the texts three times to make sure we got the text right. It was very carefully done," he said. "We did it as a stopgap measure. They have asked us to print another 6.5 million for this spring because there are more kids than they expected."

Despite a devastating drought, Afghanistan's agricultural sector is also shows signs of revival. Mr. Natsios says irrigation systems are rehabilitating orchards thought to be dead after the Taleban blew up much of the nation's irrigation system. Cotton production has increased by as much as 400 percent in some areas. And, Mr. Natsios says, food production increased dramatically over the Afghan summer.

"Wheat production increased by 800-thousand tons, which is a 50 percent increase in production," he said. "There is still a 25 percent gap between how much is needed to eat versus how much is grown. We believe over next year-and-a-half we can get the food system up to pre-1978 levels where the country was feeding itself without any imports and exporting fruits, vegetables, grapes, nuts."

Mr. Natsios says one of Afghanistan's great strengths as it struggles to recover its economy is the entrepreneurial nature of its people.