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Afghanistan war: How USAID loses hearts and minds

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In the West's battle for hearts and minds, Baharak farmer Juna Khan, by all rights, should have been won over by what success USAID's program did achieve.

Bumper crops of vegetables and grain were reported throughout the region. And Mr. Khan says his farm income rose sharply because of PADCO's improved potato seeds and agricultural training. With the extra money, he opened a shop – exactly the effect the program hoped for.

But, ironically, Khan and many others in the region are left deeply distrustful of PADCO, and, by extension, the US.

Partly that's because of the secrecy in bidding and the wasteful spending. But a quirk of nature also seemed to increase it: Farmers in the region are convinced the new potato seeds brought the Colorado potato beetle, a voracious pest. It eats leaves, causing "lots of disadvantage" to the crop, says Khan.

There is plenty of evidence to show that the beetles already existed nearby and were not introduced here by PADCO, says Andrei Alyokhin, a potato beetle expert at the University of Maine, Orono, and unconnected to the project.

But the farmer, Khan, also believes PADCO compounded the beetle problem. To reduce use of insecticide, PADCO paid farmers to catch beetles (at $5 per bottle of 1,000 beetles). So farmers began breeding them in their homes, Khan says.

The beetle has taken away some of the gains in yield and much goodwill toward America.

• • •

PADCO declined to comment on the project. However, the Monitor visited portions of it and interviewed six former PADCO employees and numerous Afghan officials and residents of Badakhshan.

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