Obama's War : Starting Over on Development

U.S. Pursues a New Way To Rebuild in Afghanistan

After three years of USAID-led Afghan reconstruction, the Obama administration plans to implement a new approach to help resuscitate Afghanistan's deteriorating agricultural economy, aimed at producing more food to improve quality of life and reversing a sense of hopelessness that has contributed to Taliban recruitment.
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

The idea to transform a vacant tract near the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif into a sprawling commercial farm, with miles of strawberry fields and thousands of cashmere goats, began with an entreaty from President George W. Bush to the billionaire chairman of Dole Foods at a 2006 Republican Party fundraiser.

Go to Afghanistan, Bush urged David H. Murdock, "to see what you can do to help."

After a tour of the country the following April, Murdock told U.S. officials he wanted to build a 25,000-acre plantation modeled after Dole's vast holdings in the Philippines. But a few months later, he concluded that transportation and security challenges made the project unsuitable for the company.

That did not dissuade the U.S. Agency for International Development. Mindful of the president's interest in the project -- and convinced that Murdock dropped out because he did not receive a thank-you call from Bush -- USAID decided to go it alone. It allocated $40 million in reconstruction money to the venture, and it directed a contractor to hire workers and purchase equipment.

It was not until a year later, after several million dollars had been spent, that agency officials realized why Afghans had not cultivated the land themselves: The water and soil were too salty to grow crops.

"It was a total waste of resources," said Frauke de Weijer, a development specialist who worked with USAID contractors building the farm. "It was a diversion of reconstruction money from other more effective and beneficial projects."

The barren farm embodies some of the challenges confronting President Obama as he tries to fulfill a campaign promise to turn around the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

Members of his national security team have concluded that the country requires not just more money and personnel for reconstruction but also a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. approach to development. They want to implement broad-based initiatives aimed at improving the lives of as many Afghans as possible, shifting away from an approach employed during the Bush presidency that focused on generating discrete "success stories" and creating long-term economic sustainability through free-market reform.

Bush administration officials contend that their method was necessary to win financial support from Congress, and to build a degree of self-sufficiency that the country desperately needs, but Obama's advisers maintain it resulted in few tangible improvements for most Afghans, leading many of them to shift allegiance to the Taliban.

The consequences of the Bush approach have been most evident in U.S. efforts to help resuscitate Afghanistan's agricultural economy, which has been severely degraded by years of war, according to internal government documents and interviews with dozens of officials involved in the country's reconstruction. Instead of emphasizing programs to help meet domestic food needs by increasing farm yields, U.S. aid officials focused much of their resources on countering the growth of opium-producing poppies through projects that encouraged other ways to make a living in rural areas. The projects often had little to do with agriculture and did not address the root causes of why farmers became part of the drug trade.

Those agriculture programs that did not involve counternarcotics were run for the past three years by a USAID official who believes the desires of private businesses should determine development strategy. He opted to steer U.S. aid toward agriculture fairs and marketing ventures instead of initiatives aimed at increasing crop production, an approach he says helped stimulate much-needed business development.

"The aid program has been driven at the operating level by people who are very ideologically private-sector, by people who have an antipathy toward government programs to assist farmers," said John W. Mellor, an agriculture economist who is an expert on farming in Afghanistan. "We are insisting that Afghanistan have a free-market economy of the sort we do not have for our own agricultural sector."

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