May 19, 2010

Farm Aid - Working Well in A'stan

To Suppress Taliban, U.S. Deploys Farm Aid
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Wall Street Journal
May 19, 2010

BABA SAHEB, Afghanistan— Dozens of goggle-clad laborers converged at the Lalay family orchard at dawn, spraying pomegranate trees with soap water against parasites.

They were paid by U.S. taxpayers, as are tens of thousands of laborers across southern Afghanistan who have been put to work in a $360 million program—one of the biggest yet—aiming to suppress the insurgency in the Taliban's cradle.

Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Production in Agriculture, or Avipa Plus, injects cash into villages, helping farmers with seeds, fertilizer and advice in exchange for collaboration with the Afghan government.

Kandahar and Helmand, the southern provinces where the bulk of this money is spent, are the focus of this year's U.S. military surge that seeks to roll back Taliban advances.

In recent months, as the military pushed back the insurgents, the Avipa program helped jumpstart the economy and prop up Afghan authorities. The program doesn't always work: in some Taliban-heavy areas, such as Marjah, in Helmand province, villagers often spurn American aid for fear of Taliban reprisal.

U.S. officials say disbursing large amounts of cash and supplies from Avipa, which comes up for budget renewal in August, isn't sustainable in the long term. But unless the security situation is turned around in the coming year, they add, there may not be any long-term Western aid presence here.

Avipa has made headway in several strategic districts, including Arghandab, a lush farming belt north of Kandahar city.

Last fall, district Gov. Hajji Abdul Jabbar would drive up to his office from Kandahar city two or three times a week, idle a few hours, and then return home. He had no authority and few locals bothered to visit him.

Then, the Avipa money suddenly rendered him relevant. To get cash and aid, village elders must first pledge to cooperate with Mr. Jabbar against insurgent attacks in their area, and coordinate implementation of the program with his office.

As more American money flowed in, the crowds grew bigger at the shuras, or meetings, at the governor's office on a compound that he shares with the U.S. military. Avipa is spending $23 million in Arghandab, home to 50,000 people.

"This provides leverage: the locals have to provide some security or otherwise they'll lose the economic stimulus," says Lt. Col. Guy Jones, commander of the U.S. Army unit responsible for Arghandab, the 2nd Battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

In the previous three years, he adds, insurgent attacks in Arghandab peaked in mid-May. This year so far, despite occasional attacks, the area hasn't seen a similar surge. "Nowadays, when someone shows up from Pakistan and says, here is 5,000 afghanis ($100), go plant a bomb, people won't listen anymore: they already have jobs," the district governor says.

Avipa, implemented by Virginia-based International Relief and Development under a United States Agency for International Development contract, usually pays Afghan laborers $5 a day. "Before, we never saw an aid program of such scope," said Abdul Hai, a village elder who came to watch the work in the Lalay orchard before going to a shura. "We're full of hope that we'll increase our harvests this year."

New techniques and supplies provided by Avipa can increase yields by some 30%, significantly increasing revenue, translating into thousands of dollars in additional revenue per hectare, according to Travis Gartner, a Nebraska farmer and former Marine who oversees the program in south Afghanistan.

Parts of the program—such as the orchard pruning—have provided the coalition forces with a direct tactical benefit, denying the Taliban the concealment of overgrown vegetation.

The Taliban have assassinated village elders and farmers who benefit from the program, and attacked a compound of International Relief and Development compound in Helmand.

"The Taliban come at night and insist: 'don't take any benefits from the foreigners and the government,' " says Dad Mohammad, an elder from a village near the Lalay orchard. "But our economy is farming, and we have nothing else here. There is at least one person from every family in the village working on these projects. The Taliban can't stop us."

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