Afghan Opium Fields Show Failure of U.S. Economic-Aid Efforts

By Ken Fireman

Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) — The strategy combined economic development, drug control and security: two Afghan-American brothers with a factory in Kandahar and a plan to give opium farmers an incentive to grow cotton instead.

For two years, Yosuf and Abdul Mir pleaded with U.S. officials for a $1.5 million grant for their project, arguing that it meshes perfectly with a billion-dollar-a-year American opium-eradication program. Then, last year, they were turned down.

The Agency for International Development’s refusal reflects a broader American policy breakdown in Afghanistan, according to critics: Even as the U.S. and NATO win tactical military battles against the Taliban, they may be losing the war through an inability to create the economic and political environment needed to defeat the insurgents.

The decision against funding the cotton proposal “is a remarkable example of the failure to align our tools with our strategy,” Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, said in Jan. 23 testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.

The long western effort to shore up Afghanistan after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 stands at what former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, the co-author of a new report on the enterprise, calls “a critical crossroads.”

Faltering Mission

In the Jan. 30 report, Pickering and the other members of the Afghanistan Study Group concluded that the “mission to stabilize Afghanistan is faltering” in the face of mounting violence and insecurity, increasing drug production and declining Afghani confidence in “their government and its international partners.”

On the security front, the report points to a sharp increase in violent attacks, especially roadside bombs and suicide explosions, by the Taliban and its Islamic fundamentalist allies. Reported acts of violence in Afghanistan rose to 8,950 last year from 900 in 2004, according to former Lieutenant General David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

Roadside bombings rose to 1,469 from 325 in the same period, while suicide bombings increased to 130 from 3, Barno told the House Armed Services Committee on Jan. 23.

While most attacks have taken place in the Taliban’s southern stronghold, some are now plaguing areas once thought relatively secure, such as the Jan. 14 attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul that left eight dead.

Iraq’s Impact

Bush administration critics such as Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, say the U.S. and its allies “risk a strategic failure in Afghanistan.” Skelton and other Democrats argue that President George W. Bush’s refusal to pull back from Iraq has crippled the effort in the more important Afghan conflict.

U.S. spending on Afghanistan has been skewed toward the military. According to a November report by the Congressional Research Service, 93 percent of the $163 billion spent since 2001 has gone to the Pentagon, while about 7 percent has been used for aid and diplomacy.

Administration officials say critics are missing some positive developments. The officials say the insurgents are turning to terror, for example, because they can no longer fight conventional battles or hold territory.

“The Taliban are losing on the battlefield repeatedly,” Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said at a Senate hearing on Jan. 31. “As they’ve lost on the battlefield, they’ve resorted more and more to tactics of pure terror.”

More Troops

Still, U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, who commands the NATO force in Afghanistan, says at least 7,500 more troops are needed. The U.S. reluctantly agreed to send an additional 3,200; no other member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has offered more. The issue is certain to arise at a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in April.

Meanwhile, Pickering and retired Marine General James Jones, the former supreme Allied commander in Europe who headed the Afghanistan Study Group, say the U.S. effort is also faltering on the economic and political fronts, including the Afghan government’s rejection last month of British diplomat Paddy Ashdown to serve as international aid coordinator.

They also point to a surge in Afghan opium-poppy production despite an intense U.S. eradication effort, saying the campaign is failing because it doesn’t provide an alternative crop for impoverished Afghan farmers and is turning the farmers into Taliban sympathizers.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in November that the value of Afghan opium exports in 2007 rose 29 percent over the previous year and was equal to 53 percent of the country’s legitimate gross domestic product. A follow-up report issued Feb. 6 said opium production this year would be at or near 2007 levels.

Profits From Opium

The issue has great strategic significance because insurgents and criminals reap “windfall” profits from the opium trade, the agency says.

That’s where the Mir brothers and their factory come in — or want to. Yosuf Mir says the plant could provide as many as 18,000 jobs, as well as a guaranteed cotton and wool market for local farmers who now grow opium for lack of an alternative.

“If we don’t do this, they’re just going to grow more narcotics,” says Mir, 49, in an interview.

Mir says he and his brother put together a deal in 2005 to renovate and run the plant, won the support of the Afghan government and got more than 2,000 farmers to sign pledges agreeing to switch from opium to cotton.

They applied to USAID for a grant under a program that funds alternatives to opium production, and got what they believed was a tentative okay in 2006 from Chemonics International, a Washington-based company that administers USAID projects in Afghanistan.

Project Rejected

A year later, in June 2007, Chemonics rejected the project without explanation. A letter in October from the head of the State Department’s Office of Afghanistan, John Fox, said the refusal was prompted by a congressional ban on funding projects that would compete with U.S. farmers.

Mir says that explanation makes no sense, because whatever is produced in his plant will only be marketed domestically. “There’s no way Afghan cotton is going to compete with American cotton,” he says. “We don’t want to send anything to the United States.”

USAID said in a statement that the congressional ban on competitive projects was the reason for the rejection. The agency also said grant decisions under the program in question are made by Chemonics. “It is ultimately USAID money, but we hire them to do the administrative work,” the agency said.

Chemonics spokesman Sean Killian said his company had no comment on the case.

Rubin, who is director of studies at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, says the decision highlights what is lacking in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan: “a multifaceted, focused strategy which brings together military, political and economic elements.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ken Fireman in Washington at kfireman1@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: February 10, 2008 19:04 EST

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Filed under Afghanistan, International Aid, United States

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