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Ambassador: Two Illinois schools a vital resource for Afghanistan
Jim Paul
Associated Press

URBANA, Ill. - A strong agriculture economy will be vital to rebuilding Afghanistan and two Illinois universities that already have a presence there can provide valuable advice, says Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States.

The University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University already have lifted up Afghan farmers through training programs, showing their commitment to helping develop crops, markets and agribusiness as Afghanistan emerges from nearly three decades of conflict, Ambassador Said T. Jawad said.

The country will need that commitment as it weans farmers from growing illegal opium poppy, which is used to make heroin and finances terrorists, he said.

"For us, it's important to work with individuals who know how to work the system in the United States in order to acquire better assistance for Afghanistan," Jawad said. "The fact that they have tremendous knowledge and expertise in the area of agriculture, and additionally some good connections with some of the programs that are beneficial to Afghanistan, is something that we would like to capitalize on."

Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador since 2003, sat down with officials from the two schools on Tuesday to explore ways to expand their relationship with his nation. While coming away with few specifics from a 90-minute discussion, Jawad was briefed on a proposal the two schools made to Afghanistan's agriculture ministry in April for growing, processing and using soybeans there.

"We will certainly look more seriously into the soybean project," he said afterward.

The University of Illinois' College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and Southern Illinois University's College of Agricultural Sciences developed training programs for Afghan farmers that began in 2003. Nearly 400 Afghans have attended one or more of the monthlong courses, and 10 Afghan university teachers are working toward their master's degrees at Northwest Frontier Province Agriculture University in Pakistan, another program developed by the two Illinois schools.

But more help is needed to get farmers to think in terms of building a long-term agricultural base, which would make farming viable and sustainable again, Jawad said.

"We have to change the psyche of the people," he told the administrators and professors seated around a boardroom table at the UI's agricultural library.

There also could be benefits to the universities and to Illinois by helping to develop Afghanistan's agricultural sector.

"Very often that first step of development is helping them just feed themselves," said UI's agriculture dean, Robert Easter. "But once they start to grow and develop and have purchasing power, then some of the products of Illinois agriculture come within their grasp."

While there is still fighting in Afghanistan, and hostility toward Westerners boiled into rioting late last month, Jawad said most Afghans welcome international investment in his country and there is "an important connection between agriculture and civility in Afghanistan."

Now, many Afghan farmers grow opium because it's a fast-growing and profitable crop in an insecure region of the world. But the same farmers, given a choice, would gladly take less money in return for more security, Jawad said.

"If the only choice is between life and death, they will take the choice of life even if it is illegal," he said. "But if you have two options, even if they make less money they will take the legal option."

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