By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 26, 2008 - Things are looking up in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, a region that has been declared poppy-free and experiences little insurgent-generated violence, senior U.S. officials posted in Afghanistan told Pentagon reporters today. The report was in contrast to a Pentagon briefing earlier in the day in which Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed increased tensions along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. Nangahar borders Pakistan, just east of Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul.
Shawn Waddoups and Army Lt. Col. Gregory Allison, the U.S. State Department and military leaders, respectively, of Provincial Reconstruction Team Jalalabad that operates in Nangarhar, briefed President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai via video teleconference earlier today. Karzai is in Washington for meetings with Bush and other senior U.S. officials.
The 26 provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan comprise "a central part of the counterinsurgency strategy, which combines economic development, education, and infrastructure with security, all aiming to help this young democracy not only survive, but to thrive, so that it never becomes a safe haven for those who would do us harm," Bush said after the teleconference.
Karzai said "life was better" in his country, and he thanked Bush and the United States "for all that you have done for Afghanistan."
During the news conference, Waddoups recalled Nangarhar's Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai telling him about a year ago, "I'll be able to wipe out the poppy crop."
The governor did so by issuing an ultimatum to growers: plow up the poppy fields, or go to jail.
Today, Nangarhar province has been declared by a United Nations body as being poppy free, Waddoups said.
Poppy eradication is a major goal of the United Nations because the plants are processed into heroin, sold on the black market and used to fund terrorist groups.
Afghan farmers in Nangarhar province now grow onions, wheat and other food crops, Waddoups said. There is more interaction between Afghans and their government than in the past, he said, noting the myriad government-provided improvements consisting of new buildings, roads, schools, bridges and other infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the reconstruction team hopes to see the development of hydro-electric dams to generate power that can be used to establish food-processing factories and create much-needed jobs, said Allison, who's also commander of the 935th Agribusiness Development Team that serves Nangarhar province.
"The agriculture piece, of course, is a viable alternative (to poppy growing)," Allison said. "But, it's not a 'quick fix.' It takes time for crops to grow, and in some of the rural and remote areas, irrigation is a problem."
Irrigation is being addressed, but large amounts of electricity is needed to run factories that can process foodstuffs and provide jobs, Allison said. Fortunately, Nangarhar province has abundant water resources for hydro-electric power, he said.
"The electricity problem is particularly difficult," Waddoups said. However, Afghan leaders are looking to obtain resources for electricity-generating projects through internal funding or via the international donor community, he said.
The outstanding Afghan Army and police in Nangarhar province "are in the lead" providing security for residents, Waddoups said. Improvised explosive devices constitute the main, but rarely seen, insurgent threat in the province, he said.
"The insurgents, frankly, they can't stand toe-to-toe with the Afghan security forces in our part of the country," Waddoups said.