Afghan ag leader: Guard has helped wipe out poppies

Saturday, August 15, 2009

SEDALIA, Mo. -- An Afghan agriculture director said Friday that opium poppy production has been virtually eliminated in his province with the help of Missouri National Guard troops who have trained farmers to grow legal crops.

Safi Mohammad Hussein, the director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock in Nangarhar Province, was a featured guest Friday at the Missouri State Fair on the first day of a one-week visit to the state.

He praised the National Guard's Agriculture Development Team, which has sent soldiers to his province to teach new agricultural production techniques. Guard units have helped build irrigation systems, distributed wheat seed to farmers, set up canning plants for fruits and vegetables and planted thousands of fruit and nut trees, among other projects.

Just a couple of years ago, Nangarhar Province was among the leaders in opium production, he said.

"Right now in Nangarhar Province, growing the poppy is zero -- we don't have any," Safi said through a translator at a news conference.

Wheat production has increased about 25 percent over last year in the province, he said, and many farmers now also are growing rice, corn and barley.

Opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, remains one of the biggest problems facing other parts of Afghanistan.

The country supplies 93 percent of the world's opium, and it is one of the main sources of funding for the Taliban.

Earlier this summer, President Barrack Obama's administration announced it was abandoning widespread poppy eradication in Afghanistan, which proved a costly and challenging endeavor. But Safi said farmers in his province have been persuaded to switch crops through friendly advice from the National Guard.

The Missouri National Guard became the first in the nation to deploy an agricultural development team to Afghanistan in 2007 and has continued rotating units since then. The roughly 60-person team consists of 11 agricultural specialists and 15 headquarters personnel and administrators, with the rest providing security.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., was instrumental in developing the Guard's agricultural efforts. He invited Safi to his home state to provide a progress report to Missouri military, agricultural and educational leaders and to learn more about American agriculture.

"When you're dealing with insurgencies, you have to give a person enough to eat -- a means to support his or her family -- before they can choose their politics," Bond said. "You need a stable community for them to live in."

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