KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- Confronted with record drug crops and a resurgent Taliban, the Afghan government must provide viable alternatives and win back the confidence of the rural poor while developing industries to jumpstart the economy, a process the country's new economy minister says will take at least a decade.
As Taliban insurgents wage their fiercest campaign since being ousted by U.S.-led coalition forces five years ago for sheltering al-Qaida operatives, Afghan drug production grew by almost 60 percent compared to last year, according to U.N. figures, and now accounts for more than 50 percent of gross domestic product.
"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," Minister of Economy Mohammad Jalil Shams told United Press International during an interview in his Kabul office.
Observers say booming drug cultivation continues to fuel an increasingly vicious Taliban, which has made arrangements with trafficking cartels and farmers beyond the reach of government authority without basic services or an alternative livelihood.
But Shams said that to resolve the drug problem linked to insecurity, an economic backbone shattered by 25 years of war must be rebuilt. Establishing electricity across the world's second poorest country is his top priority, after which he wants to fix the severe trade imbalance that persists.
"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," Shams said, adding that imports are mainly consumption goods that his country's agriculture sector must try to replace.
Once energy and electricity are in place to sustain industries and attract foreign investment, he said, it is a matter of identifying areas where Afghanistan has a competitive advantage and capitalizing on untapped native resources such as copper and iron.
However, he recognizes, the biggest challenge will be the economic integration of farmers in the countryside who depend on poppy cultivation -- the base ingredient of opium and heroin that floods the West -- to survive in the absence of other crops.
Shams concedes the Afghan government has to date failed to deliver on promises of security and reconstruction, but is hopeful fresh anti-drug initiatives will take root. Examples include saffron in Herat province, the heartland of poppy cultivation, and roses in Jalalabad, to name but a few possibilities.
But he said that "small steps" were being taken now and dramatic changes can not be expected in the near future, citing progress made neighboring countries, some of which may have come at Afghanistan's expense.
"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," Shams said. "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."
Three interrelated factors stand in the way, according to the minister. First, stability and government authority must canvass a rugged country -- slightly larger than Spain and Portugal combined -- in which the army, police, and judiciary are weak and corrupt. Next, an alternative livelihood to opium needs to be cultivated. And finally, a sweeping public awareness campaign ballasted by respected religious clerics is needed to drive home the message among disillusioned Afghans that drug use and profiteering is against Islam.
"These three aspects are interrelated," Shams said. "Even if we do well with the first two dimensions and the third is not in order, we cannot succeed."
Asked if his country was doomed to become a narco-state, Shams countered it's "only a matter of time before the situation improves."
But a recent report by Senlis Council, an international policy think tank that has covered Afghanistan extensively, said the Taliban has regained control of the southern half of the country largely due to misguided international counter-narcotics and military policies that are losing hearts and minds.
Nation-building efforts led by the United States have failed due to "ineffective and inflammatory military and counter-narcotics policies," the report says, charging there has been a "dramatic under-funding" of aid and development programs.
About $82.5 billion has been spent on military operations since 2002, versus a mere $7.3 billion on development, according to Senlis figures. This amounts to a 900 percent disparity.
"The subsequent rising levels of extreme poverty have created increasing support for the Taliban, who have responded to the needs of the local population" in the face of a humanitarian crisis, the report said, indicting poppy eradication programs as an attack on the livelihood of poverty-stricken farmers in critical southern provinces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington Wednesday to appeal for greater military and development aid. Shams said U.S. largesse has so far been vital towards stabilization efforts, which will ultimately fall short unless public support is won.
"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," the minister said.