Afghanistan: The Taliban Are Rural and The Key To Support The Government Is Rapidly Growing Agricultural Production


If foreign aid, from the start in 2002, had targeted assisting national capabilities for agricultural growth, and achieved the fully feasible six percent agricultural growth rate the Taliban would not have been able to build their rural base. What was correct from the beginning is still correct and even more feasible even though it must now start from a loss of approaching half the rural area. To succeed three features must be understood.



Most important, we now have tangible success stories for the approach that is broadly applicable to Afghanistan.  Ethiopia with an initial condition much like Afghanistan has maintained for more than two decades a six percent plus growth rate in its agriculture, broadly distributed geographically and socially. It followed the well articulated but conventional strategies (for six percent growth) of the African Union, as also delineated in my just issued Agricultural Development and Economic Transformation and delineated decades earlier in my Economics of Agricultural Development. There were no secrets in 2002 or now. A six percent agricultural growth rate is somewhat easier for Afghanistan because of the greater size of its horticulture sector with its greater growth and export potentials. 



The key to widespread political support, to rapid agricultural growth, and to poverty reduction is the small commercial farmer. They comprise on the order of half the rural population, are commercial, not subsistence, are not large scale with mechanization or large labor forces or urban oriented consumption patterns. They are rural families and produce more than three-quarters of agricultural output. They are the determinants of political support in rural areas. The poor are the subsistence farmers, near subsistence farms, and landless. It is expenditure by the small commercial farmer, from rising farm incomes, on the rural non-farm sector that drives poverty reduction. Direct action assisting subsistence farmers and the rural poor, although a helpful short run palliative, is inefficient and largely ineffective. Horticulture and to a lesser extent livestock will comprise a major portion of the growth.



Dominant rapid agricultural growth by the small commercial farmer derives from a large, technically competent, dynamic, geographically dispersed agricultural research system to which a large scale extension system is affiliated. The good news is that US foreign aid in the 1970’s built such a system in Afghanistan, the core of that system survived the war, and University of California, Davis, has the Afghan horticulture lines and capacity to provide the needed technical assistance. The bad news is that the US foreign aid program did little of the needful until very recently and the Afghan government did not compensate.  I remember more than a decade ago asking the Director Agriculture in a prominent province what he thought of rebuilding the local agriculture research center. His immediate response was “that would do so much for my reputation.” Never too late to do the right thing!

In summary, what is needed is a massive increase in foreign aid to agriculture focused on support of a dominant national effort in building a strategy and a monitoring system based on the six percent agricultural growth rate. Dominant in that would be a massive expansion with large scale technical assistance of the several regional research centers. Coordinated at the research centers would be a greatly technically improved extension service. Following would be gradual build-up of a national finance system pointed explicitly at the the small commercial farm – a system, now totally lacking.


by John W. Mellor