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Give Afghan farmers an option to opium

By Kelly G. Ramer, Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Humphrey Institute

(Kelly's article was originally published in the Star Tribune: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/78374937.html?elr=KArksLckD8EQDUoaEyqyP4O:DW3ckUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aUUsZ )

In 2008, the export value of opium from Afghanistan was estimated at $3.4 billion. It is no secret that the majority of this money is used to support Taliban insurgents. Since 2001 the United States has spent approximately $3.8 billion on counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan. Although production peaked in 2007 and has declined some since then, Afghanistan is still the No. 1 opium producer in the world.

As long as this continues, the Taliban will continue to have a steady source of revenue for their war against the Afghan government and NATO forces there.

So how can we convince Afghan farmers to trade in their poppy seeds for ones that can bring in a legitimate form of revenue? By making it worth their while to do so, of course.

Historically fruit, both fresh and dry, have been Afghanistan's main agricultural exports. Unfortunately, many of the orchards have been devastated by war, and it takes time to replant these. Even for those that are still producing, the transport infrastructure is currently so weak and battered that shipping the produce abroad, especially fresh, is very problematic.

This leaves cotton as a practical choice to lure Afghan growers away from poppy cultivation.

Just one problem -- the United States subsidizes domestic cotton production so heavily that it actually depresses the world price, making cotton production in Afghanistan an unprofitable option for farmers. Annual U.S. cotton subsidies total $3 billion, more than the entire annual development aid package to Afghanistan.

The United States is the third-largest cotton exporter in the world, but this is only because of the tremendous government intervention in this industry. Our cotton is then "dumped" on the world market, meaning it is sold below our actual cost of production. It is estimated that world cotton prices would rise 6 to 14 percent if U.S. cotton subsidies were ended.

Such an increase would be a strong incentive for Afghan farmers to return their fields to cotton. However, the cotton lobby in Washington plays a powerful hand; ending these subsidies will take significant political will.

In the meantime, why don't we subsidize Afghan cotton so it can still be competitive on the world market? This was suggested by a senior manager for a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded agricultural project in Afghanistan. The idea was immediately shot down because it clashed with free-market ideals that we ourselves do not adhere to.

Proprietors of an out-of-commission cotton ginning factory applied for U.S. assistance to restart the industry and create thousands of jobs for idle young Afghan men who are at high risk for Taliban recruitment. This proposal was also rejected by USAID within weeks, because of the 1986 Bumpers Amendment which restricts aid to foreign agriculture sectors that produce exports that would compete with U.S. exports on the world market.

These policies must be reconsidered. The WTO convened in Geneva this week to have yet another round of Doha negotiations. Showing willingness to reform these policies will help move these talks along; improving relationships with developing nations, while strengthening the WTO as a viable international governing body.

More important, national security must be the nation's No. 1 priority. When supporting inefficient domestic markets is prioritized over measures that help support our soldiers' mission in Afghanistan, there is clearly a problem.

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