Forrest Laws: Help Afghanis, farmers recover

Despite the economic woes of Afghanistan, the U.S. government has yet to develop a plan for bringing the Afghan people into the 21st Century.

After supplying the Mujahedeen with billions of dollars in weapons for battling the Soviet Union in the 1980s, U.S. officials basically turned their backs on the Afghanis. That led to years of anarchy, which ended with the Taliban taking power in 1995. Americans know the rest of the story all too well.

Fortunately, Afghan rebels aided by U.S. air power and special forces troops were able to route the Taliban and organize a transitional government that has pledged to bring peace to the country.

It will need help. Some say thousands of Afghanis could die this winter because of the lack of shelter and food supplies. Part of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is aimed at restoring airfields so that relief supplies can be flown in.

According to the latest figures, the United States will have 1.5 billion bushels of corn, 687 million bushels of wheat, 42 million hundredweight of rice and 330 million bushels of soybeans it can’t sell at the end of this marketing year.

USDA had already promised to send 300,000 metric tons of wheat as part of its food aid commitment to Afghanistan before Sept. 11. Some of those shipments were delayed because of the U.S. bombing campaign.

Those shipments and more will be needed to help the Afghanis overcome the food shortages brought on by the war and four years of drought.

USDA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and the U.S. military need to be brought together to develop a plan for distributing as much food aid to the Afghanis as possible, preferably from surplus stocks of U.S. wheat, corn, rice and soybeans.

What does that have to do with cotton? Last spring, U.S. cotton producers planted 16.3 million acres, the highest planted acreage since 1995. Favorable weather and lower abandonment resulted in a crop of more than 20 million bales.

USDA projects 8.4 million bales or nearly 48 percent of total U.S. consumption will not be sold this marketing year. Clearly, U.S. cotton producers need crop alternatives or a miracle product that will take about 5 million bales off the market this spring.

Several months ago, Michael Dicks, an Oklahoma State agricultural economist, proposed a new farm program built around donations of U.S. commodities to developing countries instead of continued cash outlays to U.S. producers.

Given the failure of the Senate to produce a new farm bill before Christmas, it may be that farm organizations need to take a new look at the proposal to see if it can be used to provide more aid to countries like Afghanistan and remove burdensome stocks from U.S. markets.

The Afghanis — and U.S. farmers — could use a few breaks.

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