Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan
by Joby Warrick  /  December 26, 2008

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift. Four blue pills. Viagra. “Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam. The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills. For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.

In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency’s operatives have used a variety of personal services. These include pocketknives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas, and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said. “Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people — whether it’s building a school or handing out Viagra,” said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Like other field officers interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition of anonymity when describing tactics and operations that are largely classified.

Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, a country where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their cooperation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don’t offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and even Iranian agents in the region. The usual bribes of choice — cash and weapons — aren’t always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say. Guns too often fall into the wrong hands, they say, and showy gifts such as money, jewelry and cars tend to draw unwanted attention.  “If you give an asset $1,000, he’ll go out and buy the shiniest junk he can find, and it will be apparent that he has suddenly come into a lot of money from someone,” said Jamie Smith, a veteran of CIA covert operations in Afghanistan and now chief executive of SCG International, a private security and intelligence company. “Even if he doesn’t get killed, he becomes ineffective as an informant because everyone knows where he got it.” The key, Smith said, is to find a way to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.

“You’re trying to bridge a gap between people living in the 18th century and people coming in from the 21st century,” Smith said, “so you look for those common things in the form of material aid that motivate people everywhere.” Among the world’s intelligence agencies, there’s a long tradition of using sex as a motivator. Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer and author of several books on intelligence, noted that the Soviet spy service was notorious for using attractive women as bait when seeking to turn foreign diplomats into informants. “The KGB has always used ‘honey traps,’ and it works,” Baer said. For American officers, a more common practice was to offer medical care for potential informants and their loved ones, he said. “I remember one guy we offered an option on a heart bypass,” Baer said.

For some U.S. operatives in Afghanistan, Western drugs such as Viagra were just part of a long list of enticements available for use in special cases. Two veteran officers familiar with such practices said Viagra was offered rarely, and only to older tribal officials for whom the drug would hold special appeal. While such sexual performance drugs are generally unavailable in the remote areas where the agency’s teams operated, they have been sold in some Kabul street markets since at least 2003 and were known by reputation elsewhere. “You didn’t hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones,” said one retired operative familiar with the drug’s use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives — the maximum number allowed by the Koran — and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could “put them back in an authoritative position,” the official said. Both officials who described the use of Viagra declined to discuss details such as dates and locations, citing both safety and classification concerns. The CIA declined to comment on methods used in clandestine operations. One senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the agency’s work in Afghanistan said the clandestine teams were trained to be “resourceful and agile” and to use tactics “consistent with the laws of our country.”

“They learn the landscape, get to know the players, and adjust to the operating environment, no matter where it is,” the official said. “They think out of the box, take risks, and do what’s necessary to get the job done.” Not everyone in Afghanistan’s hinterlands had heard of the drug, leading to some awkward encounters when Americans delicately attempted to explain its effects, taking care not to offend their hosts’ religious sensitivities. Such was the case with the 60-year-old chieftain who received the four pills from a U.S. operative. According to the retired operative who was there, the man was a clan leader in southern Afghanistan who had been wary of Americans — neither supportive nor actively opposed. The man had extensive knowledge of the region and his village controlled key passages through the area. U.S. forces needed his cooperation and worked hard to win it, the retired operative said. After a long conversation through an interpreter, the retired operator began to probe for ways to win the man’s loyalty. A discussion of the man’s family and many wives provided inspiration. Once it was established that the man was in good health, the pills were offered and accepted. Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled. “He came up to us beaming,” the official said. “He said, ‘You are a great man.’ And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area.”


V Is For Victory
by Mike Huckman  26 Dec 2008
Sectors: Pharmaceuticals / Companies: Pfizer Inc

On what has to be one of the slowest news days of the year, especially for business, today’s “Washington Post” has a great watercooler item. It’s not anything material or stock-moving for Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug company, but it will get people (think late-night comics) talking once again about the little blue pill. Reporter Joby Warrick put together a piece about how CIA agents are occasionally using PFE’s impotence-fighter Viagra to “make friends and influence people” in the renewed fight against the Taliban. The anecdotes in the article are pretty interesting and entertaining. A Pfizer spokeswoman told me the company has no comment on the Washington Post story except to say that PFE was “certainly not” aware this was going on until the Post dug it up.

Bob Windrem, a senior investigative producer at NBC News, chased down the story with the CIA. He reports that agency officials have no comment. But a senior intelligence official says, “If it was done, it was done in a handful of cases.” The official adds that no one’s gonna get in trouble for it. He tells Windrem the agency encourages officers “to think outside the box” and that whatever works within the U.S. law is fair game. Pfizer [PFE 17.10  0.09 (+0.53%)] has talked a lot lately about expanding into emerging markets and how important that is to the company’s growth. I’m certain this is not what they’ve been referring to.

Iraq’s ‘Viagra’ Black Market

Yasir Mazen is only 20 years old, but already he is a successful entrepreneur, dealing goods from his stall in a busy Baghdad market. There’s just one problem: Most of his products are counterfeit drugs and medicinal products that earn him big money, but that face the wrath of the law, starting Monday. That’s when the Ministry of Health has vowed to begin enforcing drug regulatory laws that have been ignored since 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s fall opened Iraq’s borders to all manner of imports. Many of those imports have included drugs and products that claim to have miraculous medicinal effects and that may or may not contain the ingredients needed to be effective.

Some have expired months or years earlier. Some are knockoffs of the real thing, like the little blue pills made to look like Viagra but manufactured in factories in China, India or elsewhere and lacking whatever the real thing contains. Then there are the nonpharmaceutical products that claim to have medicinal value, and which Masin says are his biggest sellers: penile enhancement pumps, sprays, gels. “The … pumps are very popular nowadays,” said Mazin, who acknowledges his products go through no government testing. The boxes in which they are sold usually feature pictures of half-naked men and women and bear little resemblance to legitimate health products. That doesn’t matter to his customers, who are willing to fork over as much as $75 for some items. Part of the appeal is that such products were never sold in public under Hussein, even if they could be smuggled into the country. Now, they are easily available, and everyone wants to give them a try, said Mazin.

That’s what riles Adel Muhsin, the Health Ministry’s inspector general, who says Iraqis are getting robbed. “Let’s be realistic. They’re scams,” said Muhsin. He says his goal is to shut down so-called “phantom pharmacies” that sell untested drugs, and the warehouses that supply these pharmacies. He also wants every medicine sold in Iraq to undergo testing at a state laboratory to ensure it is effective. The ministry already has begun stepping up enforcement. Last week, plainclothes police arrived at a market in central Baghdad and inquired how they could buy medicine. They purchased some pills from one of the vendors and left. Minutes later, uniformed police swooped down on the market, detaining vendors and confiscating their goods. One vendor who witnessed the raid but did not want to be identified said sellers usually know in advance of such raids because they pay off corrupt police to alert them. This time, he said, the police suddenly changed the location of the raid, leaving vendors unprepared.


Side Effects of Viagra
Very few drugs work perfectly, and Viagra® is no exception. Just about every drug has side effects that arise because the drug is flowing throughout the body and may affect parts of the body unintentionally. For example, aspirin is a drug that relieves pain, but this same drug can also erode the stomach lining and thin the blood. Those are side effects of aspirin.

Viagra® has several side effects of which patients need to be aware. The first problem comes because Viagra® happens to have a spillover effect. It blocks PDE5, but it also has an effect on PDE6. It turns out that PDE6 is used in the cone cells in the retina, so Viagra® can have an effect on color vision. Many people who take Viagra® notice a change in the way they perceive green and blue colors, or they see the world with a bluish tinge for several hours. For this reason, pilots cannot take Viagra® within 12 hours of a flight.

The second problem comes for people who are taking drugs like nitroglycerin for angina. Nitroglycerin works by increasing nitric oxide, and it helps with angina by opening up the arteries that supply the heart with oxygen. If you take nitroglycerin and Viagra® together, the increased nitric oxide plus the blocking of PDE5 can lead to problems.

Other problems with Viagra® can include little things like headaches (the drug, as a side effect in some men, opens up arteries in the brain’s lining and causes excess pressure) and big things like heart attacks. The possibility of heart attacks is one reason why Viagra® is a prescription drug rather than an over-the-counter drug like aspirin. A doctor needs to understand your medical history and make sure that Viagra® won’t cause a heart attack. Occasional patients who take Viagra® get painful, long-lasting erections and have to see a doctor to solve the problem. Finally, there is some concern that some men, especially younger men who take Viagra® recreationally and who don’t really need it for physical reasons, may end up with a dependency on the drug. That is, they may become unable to maintain an erection without taking Viagra®.

What about Cialis® and Levitra®?
Viagra® is a hugely successful drug, and other drug companies wanted a piece of the action. They developed different chemicals to block the PDE5 enzyme and created two new drugs: Cialis® (tadalafil) and Levitra® (vardenafil). Because Cialis® and Levitra® block the PDE5 enzyme, they work exactly the same way as Viagra®. They help men who have trouble maintaining an erection because of blood flow problems, and they only work when the man is sexually aroused.

Because they block PDE5 with different chemicals, however, there are some important differences between the three drugs. For example:
* Only Viagra® causes color-vision problems.
* Cialis® causes muscle aches in about 5 percent of patients.
* Viagra® and Levitra® last about four hours in the bloodstream. Cialis® stays in the bloodstream much longer (it has a 17.5-hour half life) and can therefore be effective for more than a day.



How Opium Can Save Afghanistan
by Reza Aslan  /  December 19, 2008

America’s drug war in Afghanistan has been a miserable failure. So why not legalize opium production and let Afghanistan become the Saudi Arabia of morphine? Afghanistan may be one the poorest countries in the world, but by legalizing and licensing opium production it could conceivably become the Saudi Arabia of morphine. It is a measure of just how great a failure the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan has been that, after six consecutive years of record growth in poppy production, including a staggering 20 percent increase last year alone, American and U.N. officials are actually patting themselves on the back over a 6 percent decline in 2008. “We are finally seeing the results of years of effort,” said Antonio Maria Costa, who heads the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime.

Only the Taliban has ever managed to significantly reduce opium production in the country a feat managed by executing anyone caught growing poppies. Yet this meager decline has almost nothing to do with international eradication efforts and everything to do with the law of supply and demand. As The New York Times reported in November, the Taliban have begun forcibly curbing poppy production and stockpiling opium in order to boost prices, which had fallen sharply due to a glut in the market. Indeed, Afghanistan has produced so much opium—between 90 to 95 percent of the world’s supply—that prices have dropped nearly 20 percent.

The truth is that the poppy eradication effort in Afghanistan, which consists mostly of hacking away at poppy fields with sticks and sickles, or spraying them from above with deadly herbicides, has been nothing short of a disaster. All this policy has managed to achieve (excluding that vaunted 6 percent decrease) is to alienate the Afghan people, fuel support for the Taliban, and further weaken the government of president Hamid Karzai, whose own brother has been linked to the illegal opium trade. Meanwhile, poppy cultivation is now such an entrenched part of Afghanistan’s economy that in some parts of the country, opium is considered legal tender, replacing cash in day-to-day transactions.

In spite of all this, the U.S. State Department is planning to expand its crop eradication campaign. Last year, President Bush tapped the former ambassador to Columbia, William Wood, to become U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. Wood, whose nickname in Columbia was “Chemical Bill,” because of his enthusiasm for aerial fumigation, has been charged with implementing in Afghanistan the same crop eradication program that—despite five billion dollars and hundreds of tons of chemicals—has had little effect on Colombia’s coca production.

It is time to admit that the struggle to end poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is a losing battle. The fact is that opium has long been Afghanistan’s sole successful export. Poppy seeds cost little to buy, can grow pretty much anywhere, and offer a huge return on a farmer’s investment. Only the Taliban has ever managed to significantly reduce opium production in the country (as it did during its late-1990s rule)— a feat managed by executing anyone caught growing poppies. It is no exaggeration to say that we have a better chance of defeating the Taliban than putting a dent in Afghanistan’s opium trade. So then, as the saying goes: if you can’t beat them, join them.

The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), a policy think-tank with offices in London and Kabul, has proposed abandoning the futile eradication efforts in Afghanistan and instead licensing farmers to legally grow poppies for the production of medical morphine. This so-called “Poppy for Medicine” program is not as crazy as it may sound. Similar programs have already proven successful in Turkey and India, both of which were able to bring the illegal production of opium in their countries under control by licensing, regulating, and taxing poppy cultivation. And there is every reason to believe that the program could work even in a fractured country like Afghanistan. This is because the entire production process—from poppies to pills—would occur inside the village under strict control of village authorities, which, in Afghanistan, often trump the authority of the federal government. Licensed farmers would legally plant and cultivate poppy seeds. Factories built in the villages would transform the poppies into morphine tablets. The tablets would then be shipped off to Kabul, where they would be exported to the rest of the world. These rural village communities would experience significant economic development, and tax revenues would stream into Kabul. (The Taliban, which taxes poppy cultivation under their control at 10 percent, made $300 million dollars last year.)

The global demand for poppy-based medicine is as great as it is for oil. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, 80 percent of the world’s population currently faces a shortage of morphine; morphine prices have skyrocketed as a result. The ICOS estimates that Afghanistan could supply this market with all the morphine it needs, and at a price at least 55 percent lower than the current market average. Thus far, the Bush Administration has balked at this idea, despite a warm reception from the Afghan government and some NATO allies. There is a fear in Washington that such a proposal would contradict America’s avowed “war on drugs.” But the opium crisis in Afghanistan is not a drug enforcement problem, it is a national security issue: Licensing and regulating poppy cultivation would not only create stability and economic development, it could sap support for the Taliban and help win the war in Afghanistan. So which will it be? The War on Drugs? Or the War on Terror? When it comes to Afghanistan, we can only choose one.

{Reza Aslan is a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, Middle East analyst for CBS News, and a featured blogger for Anderson Cooper 360. He wrote the New York Times bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Aslan is co-founder and creative director of BoomGen Studios as well as the editorial executive of}


Afghanistan swaps heroin for wheat
by Con Coughlin  /  Apr 8, 2008

“I’ve just come from a meeting with the newly appointed Afghan governor Gulab Mangal where it emerged that for the first time since British forces deployed to the region two years ago local farmers are not concentrating all their energies on producing heroin. Poppy eradication was flagged up as one of the main British priorities when former defence secretary John Reid first announced Britain’s deployment two years ago. This part of the mission has not exactly been a glorious success. Last year poppy production actually increased. But now it seems the message is finally getting through. In parts of Helmand Afghan farmers are this year sowing wheat instead of poppy – not because they have suddenly been converted to the argument that producing heroin is not in the national interest. Market forces have been the deciding factor – with wheat prices doubling in the past year, and the street price of heroin falling, it is now more cost effective to grow wheat. At last there are signs of progress being made amidst Afghanistan’s battle-scarred landscape.

Afghanistan’s wheat problem
by Blake Hounshell   /  03/11/2008

Eminent Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin is sounding the alarm about rising wheat prices in South Asia. Seeking to tamp down food inflation, Pakistan has reduced its exports of wheat to Afghanistan. That could lead to dangerous riots and civil unrest north of the Durand Line and provide a potent political issue for the Taliban to exploit. The flip side, Rubin notes, is that the rising prices of farm products ought to make crop-substitution programs more viable: “Nonetheless, the rise in price in wheat and other commodities (what is happening to horticultural commodities, flowers, essential oils, and so on?) presents an opportunity for investing in other cash crops and their marketing in Afghanistan. For all the rhetoric about how the drug economy is supporting insurgency and terrorism, where is the program to seize this market opportunity? And for all the talk of the importance of Afghanistan to global security, where is the program to assure Afghans of an affordable supply of basic food?”

Indeed, the lack of creativity on this front has been astonishing. A few weeks back, I attended a Cato Institute luncheon with Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States. Noting that opium traffickers often loan farmers the money to plant and fertilize the opium harvest for the coming year, I asked the ambassador what programs are in place to provide loan support for farmers who want to grow alternative crops. According to him, there are essentially none. So if you’re an Afghan farmer who wants to grow wheat or strawberries instead of opium poppies, you’re largely on your own. And we wonder why Afghanistan now supplies 93 percent of the world’s opiates.


by Barnett R. Rubin  /  February 27, 2008

“I returned from a trip to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1998. A few months later, during a discussion at the International Peace Academy, I summarized my findings as, “Outside of Afghanistan, all people think about about is Islam and extremism, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is money.” I often [think of] this, most recently when a reporter who was gearing up for his first trip to the region by reading books on theology and political ideology asked me how it was possible for Hanafi Muslims like the Taliban to ally with Wahhabis like al-Qaida — was it because the Deobandi school was closer to Wahhabism? I replied (with a pinch of exaggeration) that this had nothing to do with anything, and to understand the Taliban he would be better off looking into the price of bread.

Outside of Afghanistan people want to know if Deobandis are a type of Hanafis that are closer to Wahhabis, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is the price of bread. As I was leaving Kabul in January, the fixer who helps me get through lines and avoid bribes at the airport started complaining about the price of bread (as for bribes — when one of the border police at the numerous airport checkpoints asked him for some money for tea, he pointed to me and said “mahman-i rais-i jamhur ast wa-farsi mifahmad” — he’s a guest of the President and understands Persian — both clauses of which were exaggerated but effective). He complained that people in Afghanistan were concerned with only one thing: getting enough bread to eat, and so many were not able to do so. The prices of everything were so high! Under the Taliban the price of everything was much lower. I pointed out to him that we were driving to the airport (much improved, difficult though it is to believe for those seeing it for the first time) along a newly paved wide highway that could accommodate the increased traffic. He acknowledged all that, but said that many people were better off under the Taliban.

I paused a little bit to let that sink in, and then I asked him, So do people want the Taliban to come back? His eyes bugged out as if I had completely lost my mind, and he started waving his hands in the air and shouting, “No! No!” Of course this man had a secure job with the government, was about to leave for English-language training course in India, and had been able to go on hajj last year. I don’t think that foreign soldiers had broken into and searched his house or killed, arrested, or abused any of his relatives (at least he never mentioned it, which others did). He was a hajji, but a clean shaven hajji. And by the looks of him, he was getting his daily bread, and then some.

But I had heard quite a bit about this bread. Someone told me that food prices had gone up 70 percent. After General Musharraf declared a state of Emergency during my visit in November, notes from Pakistani friends often spoke of a growing shortage of “atta” (whole wheat flour). On my flight to Delhi from Kabul I sat with a senior official of the Indian Customs Service who was advising the Afghan Customs Department. He told me that Afghanistan was importing only ten percent the amount of wheat that it had last year. U.S. Ambassador William Wood was trying to convince Afghan villagers that food shortages (like the insurgency) were due to poppy cultivation. (I always heard that food shortages led Afghans to cultivate poppy so they could buy wheat plus have some cash for other needs — but that would require assuming that farmers earn money for their crop and can buy food on a market.)


What is going on? The Wall Street Journal (behind subscription firewall) answers the question this morning (hint — it’s not the scourge of narcotics or, to be fair, General Musharraf either):

“The little known Minneapolis Grain Exchange is suddenly one of the hottest spots in the global financial markets…. Yesterday wheat closed at $22.40 a bushel on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, up from about $5 a year ago….Minneapolis has become ground zero for the global wheat shortage, which has been caused by drought in Australia and poor weather in other grain-producing countries. Global stocks are projected to reach 30-year lows this year, while U.S. stocks will reach 60-year lows. The rise in agricultural prices, combined with high oil prices .. have contributed to higher food inflation in the U.S. and around the world…. Another byproduct of the rally by wheat and other grains is that food is becoming more politicized as countries dependent on food imports fear they will be left at the mercy of volatile markets and shrinking supplies. Such a development could exacerbate hunger while generating food riots or political problems at home. To cope with high prices, countries have been rationing supplies by leveling tariffs or taxes on grain exports. [Kazakhstan and Syria have taxed or canceled exports, while Jordan and Egypt are short of food.] Pakistan recently stopped exporting some of its wheat flour to Afghanistan.”

In addition, countries accounting for a third of global exports (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Argentina, and China) have taken some wheat off the market to address domestic shortages. “Food riots or political problems….” Of course there were those riots in Kabul in May 2006 in which a few hundred angry young men paralyzed the capital for much of a day…. At several meetings I have heard former Minister of Finance of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani say that the most common definition of a “Talib” in southern Afghanistan is “an unemployed youth.” Some Kandahari fruit traders I interviewed said that nearly all the fighting in Afghanistan was due to unemployment. Statistically, youth employment is one of the most robust correlates of civil violence. Another thought — this bad weather, drought, and so on leading to shortages not seen in decades…. Could it be related to climate change? I don’t know. But I suspect that neither missile strikes, nor more NATO troops, nor a deeper study of Islamist political ideology will enable us to solve these problems.”

Failing Wheat Crop Causes Afghan Food Crisis
by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson  /  September 11, 2008 ·

In Afghanistan, a lingering drought has led to the smallest wheat harvest in the country in years. Officials say the shortfall is nearly 1.7 million tons. Compounding the dilemma is a global spike in food prices. Millions of Afghans are now in danger of going hungry, and the international community is responding to the crisis. The U.S. recently donated 50,000 tons of wheat, but experts warn this kind of crisis will happen again unless the Afghan government and international donors start paying more attention to the country’s farmers.

Frustration Growing
The only thing growing in a village in northern Kunduz province is frustration. Farmers complain the drought has left them without enough wheat to eat, let alone sell, this winter. This is the worst drought any one can remember, and looking at the brown fields it is easy to see why farmers are distressed. One field was a wheat field, but there was not enough rain and water in the canal, so farmers tried planting okra and melons. Those crops didn’t take either, so now the field is just mounds of dirt that stretch for acres. Mohammad Yusuf heads an informal farmers’ cooperative called “Beggars’ Gathering.” He takes his anger out on dried okra stems sticking out of the dirt by snapping them in half. Yusuf says rain touched their fields maybe twice this year, and he says other than providing some seed, his government has done nothing to help. Abdul Aziz Nikzad, the agricultural director in Kunduz province, says he empathizes with Yusuf. Nikzad says his province used to be called the wheat warehouse of Afghanistan, but not anymore.

Mistrust In The Ministries
Nikzad blames the drought and the government in Kabul for not acting more quickly to help farmers. He says the various ministries don’t trust one another: When his superiors at the Agriculture Ministry told him to rent tankers five months ago to help get water to dying livestock, he is still waiting for the Finance Ministry to give him the money. “The ministries with money act like warlords guarding their personal coffers,” Nikzad says. “There’s so much red tape and micromanaging that there’s little I can do to help the farmers.” Nikzad is still waiting to hear whether they will give him money to dig the three wells he needs to keep his 250-acre government farm alive. He says he has to dig those wells by next month or he’ll miss the deadline for planting next season’s wheat. For now, the only water at the farm is pumped through a four-inch fire hose donated by the French. The water comes from the farm’s lone well. A farm worker uses the water to plant a small field of almond, apricot and other saplings. It’s the only field in sight where anything is growing.

‘A Blessing In Disguise’
Tekeste Ghebray Tekie, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization representative based in Kabul, says of the billions of foreign dollars spent on rebuilding Afghanistan, only a few hundred million have gone to improving agriculture. But, Tekie says, the drought and soaring wheat prices served as a wake up call about the dangers of ignoring agriculture in a country where 80 percent of the population is dependent on farming. “I call it a blessing in disguise,” Tekie says. “For one thing, it brought attention to agriculture. For another, farmers may switch from poppy to growing crops or wheat. So maybe there’s an opportunity there from the crisis.” Many say that wheat at this stage is becoming more lucrative than opium poppy, and the key is to help poppy farmers make the switch. Still, there are a lot of questions about what Afghan agriculture should look like.

U.S. officials are interested in seeing farmers focus more on cash crops like fruit and nuts that grow better and will boost the economy. “You grow a little wheat, and you eat it; and then you grow tree fruits and other kinds of things, and you sell those for cash; and that’s kind of the relationship,” says Loren Stoddard, the director of alternative development and agriculture at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kabul. “So wheat’s important to people, but it’s really not anything that’s going to generate revenues and jobs really — economic progress.” Still, USAID officials are working to ease the wheat shortage in Afghanistan. They say they will roll out an up to $60 million voucher program later this month. Farmers can use the vouchers to buy seed and fertilizer at a hefty discount.

Seed shortage hits Afghan wheat farmers
by Jonathon Burch  /  06 Dec 2008

Thousands of tonnes of wheat seed are being distributed across Afghanistan, but this will meet only a quarter of demand so Afghans will rely heavily on imports next year, a development expert said on Saturday. Afghanistan has been hit hard by drought and rising global food prices, making it heavily reliant on handouts and imports. An estimated 30 percent of Afghans are considered chronically food insecure, according to the U.S. development agency (USAID). Much of the best arable land is also used to grow opium, the raw material for heroin, adding to the food shortage. Always a wheat importer, the country should focus on high-value cash crops like pomegranates in future, the development expert said. The Afghan government and several donor countries have launched a $60 million agricultural stimulus programme for the 2008/2009 crop season.

Around 12,000 tonnes of U.N. certified wheat seed are being distributed to farmers, but this falls short of the 50,000 tonnes the government says is needed. “We know it’s not enough for every farmer in every province. We know it’s not enough for all of their lands,” said Loren Stoddard, director of alternative development and agriculture for USAID in Afghanistan. “But we’re promoting the use of certified seed which means we’re only promoting about 12,000 tonnes, which is all there is available in the country,” he said, while visiting a distribution site in Samangan, northern Afghanistan. There are more seeds available for commercial sale in the country, Stoddard said, but they have not been certified and are of much poorer quality.

Big Seed Subsidies
The certified seeds are being distributed to those farmers considered most vulnerable at a considerably subsidised rate. Farmers will pay around 15 percent of the market value. “I am happy. I can’t get it at this price from the city,” Mohammad Sadiq, a farmer waiting in line at a distribution site in Samangan, told Reuters. “I’m happy with this amount but if they distributed more it would be better,” said another farmer, Mohammad Murad. The Agriculture Ministry does not want seed to be imported as this would change the genetic characteristics of the local seed which is well adapted for Afghanistan, said Stoddard. Drought and rising global food prices have pushed up the price of certified wheat seed, said Stoddard.

“We’re anticipating this will create incentive for seed companies to grow more so we can develop this,” he said. Stoddard believes that within two to three years, Afghanistan could grow enough certified seed to meet demand. But while USAID and other donors are trying to stimulate wheat production, Stoddard said Afghanistan had always been a net importer of wheat and its long-term future lay in producing high-value cash crops. “Long term we have to focus on things like planting more pomegranate, fruit and nut trees, vineyards … that’s really where the future is,” said Stoddard. “Wheat is really kind of a supplement to those other cash crops. We just want to make it as efficient as possible,” he said.

Canada buys wheat seeds to give Afghan farmers alternative to poppies
by Ethan Baron  /  November 08, 2008

Canada is providing $1.2 million to buy wheat seeds and fertilizer for thousands of Afghan farmers, but the Taliban warn they may attack any foreigners who attempt to distribute the seeds. The money will pay for 293 tonnes of wheat seed, to supply more than 5,000 farmers with 50 kilograms each, and plant a total of 2,000 hectares of land. “We look forward to working with the governor of Kandahar to sow these seeds of peace,” said Elissa Golberg, Representative of Canada in Kandahar, head of Canadian development operations in Kandahar province. The project is intended to raise farm yields, and give growers an alternative to the lucrative poppy trade, said Kandahar Gov. Rahmatullah Raoufi. “We are going to avoid and prevent farmers from the poppy cultivation,” Raoufi said.

Farmers have good reasons to switch from growing poppies to growing wheat, said Abdul Hai Niamati, Director of Agriculture for Kandahar province. Pressure from other nations concerned about opium production, and from the Afghan government, provides a disincentive, Niamati said. “The government says that if anyone grows poppy they will be punished, and their poppy will be killed,” Niamati said. “If they grow poppy, the government will make trouble for them.” Also, wheat prices are increasing, and “that is why people are wanting to grow wheat,” Niamati said.

Poppy cultivation also takes more time, labour, and water than growing wheat, Niamati said. The Taliban won’t target farmers who switch from poppies to wheat, but may take violent action if it’s done by the wrong people, said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. “We are not against wheat growing. There will be no threat or concern for farmers who are sowing wheat in their lands,” Mujahid said. “However if the government authority or foreigners come down to the districts for the purpose of distributing wheat seeds, we might attack them. “If the seeds are being distributed by local community people or tribal elders or through ordinary people, it doesn’t matter, there will be no problem.”

Raoufi said the provincial government will set up a provincial-level commission, and district-level commissions, which will determine how the seeds are distributed, and monitor the distribution. Seeds will go to farmers in five districts – Daman, Arghandab, Panjwaii, Maywand, and Zhari – who meet the minimum farm-size requirement, have the ability to irrigate, and are in need. Much of the region is a hotbed of Taliban activity, with Canadian troops having daily skirmishes with insurgents in some areas. Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based aid group, will oversee the program, Raoufi said. Farmers will pay 25 per cent of the value of the seeds they receive, and that revenue will go into development work to be determined by Mercy Corps, Niamati said. Niamati said the provincial government would like to see that money go to develop a wheat-seed farm at Tarnak Farm outside Kandahar, former home of Osama bin Laden.

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