Afghan farmers can prosper by producing the world’s finest melons, pomegranates and grapes, says Elliot Wilson, but first they must be weaned off growing the opium poppy
Modern-day Afghanistan conjures up many fearsome images, from rocket-launchers and retreating Soviet tanks to mujahedin warriors and Taleban zealots. Yet this war-ravaged central Asian state, which has to date repelled every barbarian invader foolish enough to set foot on its dusty red soil, has another, much gentler aspect to its national character. When no one is looking and the men have hung up their Kalashnikovs for the day, many of them attend to their second career: growing melons.
And not just any melons. Afghanistan has been producing the world’s finest kharbouza for at least 4,500 years. Persian emperors cried when they ate them, as did Mughal Shahs. Today, countries across the Middle East and the subcontinent can’t get enough of them. The swankiest Mumbai dinner party just isn’t up to snuff without a fine, sweet, Afghan melon for dessert.
And there’s more than melons in the Afghan fruit basket. Wealthy merchant families in Saudi Arabia will eat Helmand table grapes until they can’t stand up. Kunduz strawberries, tiny and succulent, are also favoured on regional platters, alongside pistachios, paper-shelled almonds and raisins. The country is poised to become a major exporter of pomegranates — fizzing with life-affirming antioxidants — and prime morel mushrooms, literally worth their weight in silver and growing wild by the truckload in the south and west of the country.
Afghanistan has always been dependent on agriculture. Too remote, and backward in technology, to manufacture finished goods at competitive prices, lacking the skills needed to develop even a nascent services sector, Kabul’s thin but fertile soil has traditionally been its saviour. As recently as the late 1970s, the country had a flourishing fruit export industry and was self-sufficient in grain, including wheat. In 1978, according to the Asian Development Bank, the country boasted 80,000 hectares of vineyards that brought in $50 million in annual revenues. Such was the perceived security of Afghanistan that Italian winemakers invested in vineyards in southern Helmand, exporting Afghan wines fine enough to please the most discerning Milanese palates.
That all came to a terrible halt in 1979, when the Soviet Union began its disastrous invasion of the world’s most uninvadable nation. Only now, 30 years on, with Afghan life expectancy reduced to 44 years (the lowest outside sub-Saharan Africa) is the country’s agricultural sector on the move again.
Fruit and vegetable sales overseas are rising, albeit slowly. Export revenues were estimated at less than £5 million in 2008, a fraction of the billions earned through trade in Afghanistan’s most notorious native crop, the opium poppy. The 2007 poppy harvest was the largest ever, producing 95 per cent of the world’s refined opiates with an estimated street value of $38 billion, though the 2008 harvest was considerably less fruitful, and this year’s is set to be smaller still.
Recognition that agriculture is the best way forward for the Afghan people — and probably the only way of weaning them off both submission to the Taleban and economic dependency on opium — has belatedly dawned on leading aid agencies. Britain’s Department for International Development released its latest country plan for Afghanistan in April, pledging £127 million a year until 2013, £30 million of which is earmarked to help farmers make a living from the pomegranate instead of the lethal poppy.
That £30 million, invested via the Afghan government, forms part of a new programme called the Comprehensive Agriculture and Rural Development Facility, or CARD. Britain is currently by far the most progressive foreign government at work in Afghanistan, providing some two thirds of the expected aid commitments for CARD. Agencies from the United States, Canada and the Netherlands are talking about joining the programme this year or next. The new structure is both slimline — operated directly out of the agriculture ministry — and intuitive, providing farmers with micro-credit loans that are well attuned to subsistence farming on marginal land.
To be sure, many foreign donors remain reticent about throwing money at Kabul. But there is a general belief here that for the first time in decades — and perhaps ever — Afghanistan is at last patching together a real working government. Much of this has to do with the appointment since late 2008 of a handful of progressive, technocratic ministers of state. The list includes Asif Rahimi, the minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, and interior minister Hanif Atmar, who gained his masters degree at York University. Another key figure, finance minister Omar Zakhilwal, joined the fold this March, as did the Canadian-Afghan governor of Kandahar, Tooryalai Wesa.
These men have fast become highly influential at home and abroad. Well educated, free from the ingrained mindset of corruption of their warlord predecessors, they are becoming trusted in Britain, Europe and North America, and — most importantly — they have faith in one another, a key asset in a country where trust and personal relations are everything.
Stephen Masty, a communications specialist who advises the Afghan government on public policy, says these figures are a ‘huge step up’ from the first generation of ministers appointed under President Hamid Karzai. ‘They are the darlings of donors,’ he says, ‘and they are making all the difference — champions of change who have set the world on its head in Afghanistan.’
A former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan who somehow ended up owning the Afghan bottling rights for Coca-Cola in the early 1990s, Masty warns that this new generation of technocrats has precious little time to prove to the Afghan people that their fragile government can support them financially, and defend them against external and internal threats.
It is worth recalling recent poll figures quoted by David Kilcullen in his review of the military situation in Afghanistan in The Spectator on 23 May: support for the Taleban stands at just 4 per cent, while 63 per cent of Afghans wanted coalition forces to stay and about half think President Karzai and his government are doing a good job. Yet the clock is ticking. ‘The attitude increasingly within the US and Britain is that we have three or four years to show real progress in Afghanistan,’ Masty notes. ‘We have that amount of time — until the end of Barack Obama’s first term — to get the agricultural sector reformed, or the Afghans will finally walk away from us for good.’
There is one major stumbling block to the grand agricultural plan, however. Afghanistan being the buffer zone between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, that stumbling block is provided not so much by the Taleban but by the bungling, blundering politicians and generals who rule Pakistan. Afghan produce — those precious, fragrant melons and strawberries that have the potential to offer a war-weary nation a route out of poverty — is regularly turned back at the Pakistan border. Landlocked as they are, with unfriendly neighbours to the north and east, Afghan hauliers are worryingly dependent on access either to Pakistan’s seaports or via overland routes to Indian markets.
Neither prospect is particularly welcome to the paranoid, septuagenarian clique of military chiefs who misrule in Islamabad. ‘Security concerns’ are regularly cited when Afghan lorries packed with almonds and mushrooms are prevented from crossing the border, but the reality is that Pakistan’s army fears any sign of improvement in relations between Kabul to the north and New Delhi to the south-east. ̵
6;Pakistan impedes access to the Indian market vigorously,’ says one senior British diplomat. ‘It doesn’t want India and Afghanistan to grow any closer, and it doesn’t like India “meddling”, as it sees it, in the ongoing regional peace process, and circumventing Pakistan.’
The great irony here is that a safer, more secure Afghanistan, built on the foundations of a healthy rural economy — and less dependent on either the poppy harvest or an airlift of melons direct to Riyadh or Mumbai — would be immensely beneficial to Pakistan. Yet for all Islamabad’s shameful posturing, things are looking up in Kabul for the first time in decades. International donors have warmed to the new generation of Afghan ministers, and a fresh spirit of co-operation is blowing in from the Obama administration in Washington.
And, if ways can be found to shift more of Afghanistan’s mouthwatering produce, with or without Pakistan’s help, there is still time to prove that in a country that gave the world the kite, the tulip, the picnic and the melon — together forming a perfect, sunlit image of peace and tranquillity — the fruit bowl can prove mightier than the sword.