Interview: Minister Mohammad Jalil Shams
Kabul, Afghanistan, September 27, 2006 (UPI) - As Taliban insurgents wage their fiercest offensive since the ultra-fundamentalist movement was toppled by U.S.-led forces five years ago, Afghanistan has produced a record opium crop.
According to U.N. figures, opium cultivation jumped by almost 60 percent compared with last year, and some estimates hold the drug accounts for more than 50 percent of GNP in the world's second-poorest country. Observers say booming drug cultivation continues to fuel an increasingly vicious Taliban, known to have made arrangements with trafficking cartels and intimidated farmers beyond the reach of government authority who remain stuck without a viable agricultural alternative to survive.
Today the Afghan government relies on international assistance to uphold security and rebuild infrastructure shattered by decades of civil conflict. But officials here say internal efforts are underway to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a bona fide narco-state and win back public confidence. Having just completed his first month in office, Minister of Economy Mohammad Jalil Shams spoke with United Press International correspondent Jason Motlagh about the complexity of the drug problem, future alternatives for growth, and the need for patience as his country tries to reverse its course.
UPI: With so much work to be done, what are your top priorities to revive the Afghan economy?
SHAMS: The top priority at the moment is electricity, to improve the energy sector, because this is the bottleneck of all development projects. The second project, once the energy sector, in four to five years will be agriculture -- mainly to replace the imports we have now. Afghanistan is an agricultural country, but we have a very imbalanced trade balance, with imports of $2.3 billion and exports of only $300-500 million. The imports are mainly consumption goods and we will try with the agriculture sector to replace these. Future exports will be our raw materials, which will be the third part of the project.
Q. Attracting foreign investment is essential for broad-based development. What domestic industries and resources will you promote to the world?
A. Electricity and energy are not available to the industries that depend on it. The points where we clearly have a comparative advantage are not yet identified. You can not enforce and market an industry without possibilities for selling the project. Once the energy and agriculture sectors are developed and raw materials are available we will know what kind of industries can be created in this country. We do have excellent copper resources, excellent iron resources ... whether there is enough to have stable industries in this country remains a question.
Q. Confronted with record drug production, what alternatives are there for farmers struggling to make a living without government support, and how long will they take to implement?
A. That Afghanistan is producing the largest amount of opium in the world is a fact nobody can deny. It is also true that there is no real alternative livelihood for the people who are cultivating poppy at the moment in Afghanistan. The government is trying anti-drug measures to create an alternative livelihood. Examples include saffron in Herat province and roses in Jalalabad, and there are other alternatives working in other sectors for people in order to turnaround from drug cultivation. But these are small steps that we are taking now and it takes time, as we can see in other countries such as Pakistan, which has been successful maybe because a part of their (drug) industry has been transferred to Afghanistan. They now have alternatives for farmers. It took them at least eight to 10 years. It took Thailand about 20 years to get rid of drug cultivation.
Q. Observers say that international security reinforcements must go hand-in-hand with fast-track reconstruction if the drug problem is ever to be resolved. What is your assessment?
A. According to my understanding, the problem has three dimensions: first thing is stabilization of development and the spread of government power over all of the country, which is at the moment very weak. We have a weak army and police, judiciary system, severe corruption. When a criminal is caught either the prosecution or the judge will let him go. Under these circumstances it's not possible to really do something. The second dimension is providing a growing alternative for farmers attractive enough not to grow opium. The third is the creating of a good public awareness campaign. It is vital that mullahs and other religious authorities tell people it is not right according (to Islam) to use drugs. These three aspects are interrelated. We are at the beginning and trying to do our best. But even if we do well with the first two dimensions and the third is not in order, we cannot succeed.
Q. Is Afghanistan destined to become narco-state or is it just a matter of time before the situation improves?
A. I'm sure it's a matter of time because we had these possibilities in the past, when we were not an opium country. For example, in Herat, as long as (current Energy Minister) Ismail Khan was governor there were no poppies growing there. But as the power of the government has been reduced, it has also become an opium producing province. Even in Helmand years ago, there was a time when a time when one of the mujahedin commanders there was convinced not to cultivate opium and he did not. He then, through religious leaders, waged a campaign to convince people not to grow it. In one year growth plummeted. But then the next year, he was not paid the amounts he was supposed to be paid and he said 'OK, go ahead and cultivate.'
Q. With the twin flare-ups of the Taliban and drug production, how helpful has the United States really been in providing security assistance thus far?
A. The U.S. has done very well in their efforts to help us. I can only say that we shall try to win the confidence of the people, but without that, even if we are the strongest possible militarily, it is not possible to establish security.