November 20th, 2009
12:02 AM ET

Analysis: From poppies to pomegranates in Afghanistan

We were at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul waiting for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to join a breakfast of 15 foreign ministers to discuss international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

But what Clinton really wanted to talk about was pomegranate juice.

“It’s fabulous,” she said to the reporters and cameramen hanging outside the room for her as she walked into the room of ministers. “You must try it.”

Turning to Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, she said “Karl must get these journalists some pomegranate juice!”

During a 30-second photo op, Clinton greeted her guests and talked about a “window of opportunity” to work with the government of Afghanistan to improve security and create a better life for the Afghan people.

As we were being ushered out, I heard Clinton raving once again about the pomegranate juice, explaining a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to make the pomegranate a major export crop in Afghanistan and press their tiny seeds into fresh juice.

Clinton arrived in Kabul on Wednesday, the eve of President Hamid Karzai’s inauguration. His election was marred by fraudulent balloting amid growing U.S. concerns about his refusal to tackle corruption and questions about his ability to be a reliable partner for the United States in the war against the Taliban.

I have to admit, after months of hearing the Obama administration complain about Karzai, I was shocked to hear Clinton would be attending his inauguration. Isn’t giving him an air of legitimacy exactly what the United States wanted to avoid?

Hours after her arrival, Clinton had dinner with Karzai. During some opening chit-chat for the cameras the president asked her about her grueling travel schedule, to which she replied “this is the life we have chosen, Mr. President," sounding as if she was channeling  Miami gangster Hyman Roth in The Godfather II. How apropos for a meeting with Karzai, who the Obama administration has not been shy about saying it considers to be a corrupt, ineffective leader who rules by patronage.

As her brief 24-hour visit progressed, Clinton’s tone softened. She continued to refer to this “window of opportunity” for the United States and the international community to help support Karzai’s government, and for Karzai to deliver on the vision he laid out in his inaugural speech in which he promised to create accountability and transparency in his government and tackle corruption.

The protracted election crisis allowed long simmering tensions between Karzai and the Obama administration to fester. Certainly, the United States hoped the election had turned out differently and Karzai would have failed to win re-election.

But like it or not, the U.S, has accepted Karzai is here to stay. And so at the very least, his inauguration ends the period of uncertainty in the relationship between Washington and Kabul and allows President Obama to make his decision on sending up to 40,000 additional troops without an albatross of uncertainty hanging around his neck.

Clinton’s appearance in the front row of Karzai’s inauguration was her way of burying the hatchet, a closing of the recent chapter of acrimony and a commitment to begin the important work Washington and Kabul must do together. She seems to have formed a close bond with Karzai: one politician to another cajoling him to do right by his people by arguing what’s good for the country is good politics for him and good for his legacy.

Truth be told, Obama’s decision on how many troops to send has less to do with Karzai himself and more to do with specific U.S. national interests in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Karzai knows that. But he also knows that he needs continued U.S. military and financial support to keep his government afloat.

It’s unclear how long this window of opportunity for Karzai to prove himself will stay open. The United States has little leverage over him to force him to quickly make these reforms. But money talks. Clinton already threatened the United States could direct its aid to Afghanistan away from Karzai’s government and into the hands of local leaders, many of whom are seen as more reliable.

Many Afghans we’ve talked to say that despite Karzai’s many problems, he has made genuine progress in the country during his first seven years in office. Clinton tried to make that point as well, saying that despite the problems, she was “heartened” by Karzai’s commitment to take the country forward.

Which leads us back to pomegranates.

Before leaving Kabul, Clinton met U.S. troops at Kabul International Airport to thank them for their service. She recognized the challenges ahead but marveled at the progress Afghans have made since the U.S. invasion in 2002. In particular she said Afghans were moving from poppies - the country’s current major cash crop which produces the majority of heroin in the world - to pomegranates. I have to say, her enthusiasm for the fruit and its capacity to transform the Afghan economy was infectious.

Before we left I paid $5, a hefty sum in Afghanistan, for a glass of freshly pressed pomegranate juice from a coffee stand run by an Afghan national at the embassy. I’m not sure this tasty treat will save Afghanistan, but it was, as Clinton advertised, simply delicious.

But helping Afghanistan with its pomegranates is, well, low hanging fruit. With Afghanistan’s fertile land and wealth of farmers looking to make a living, U.S. money, technology and expertise could easily help Afghanistan once again become a world leader in agricultural exports. The real challenge for the United States will be harnessing the potential of Karzai and his new government to put Afghanistan on the right path before the window of opportunity closes.

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