Taliban takeover threatens Afghan agriculture as farmers fear being forced to grow poppy

As Afghans figure out how to get on with their lives, fears abound that the new Taliban government will crack down on local business and commerce. The Taliban takeover could cripple Afghan farmers in the middle of their harvest, in a country where agriculture is the lifeblood of rural communities and is Afghanistan’s largest export business. Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

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  • John Yang:

    As Afghans figure out how to live under Taliban rule, uncertainty and fear abound.

    American aid organizations working there are also concerned about whether the U.S. government will allow them to operate in a country governed by what is technically still classified as a terrorist group.

    Special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The Taliban takeover couldn't have come at worst time for Afghan farmers. It's the middle of the harvest. Agriculture is the lifeblood of rural communities and Afghanistan's largest export business.

    Heidi Kuhn, CEO, Roots of Peace: And if we lose our sight on cultivating these fresh fruits and all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, there will be even further mayhem of starvation and financial crises.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Heidi and Gary Kuhn founded Roots of Peace, a California-based humanitarian and agriculture development nonprofit, after the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

    With private funding, Roots of Peace de-mined farm fields abandoned since the Soviet occupation. With tens of millions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian and development grants, they have spent nearly the last two decades reintroducing grapes and other high-value fruit production as alternatives to growing poppies for the lucrative heroin trade, a major revenue source for the Taliban during the American occupation.

    Gary Kuhn, President, Roots of Peace: We're working with 10,000 to 20,000 farmers at a time. And we're working with basically all the traders and exporters of the country.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The Taliban have taken over the customs collections at the major border crossings leading to the primary export markets in Pakistan and India.

    U.S. Treasury sanctions since 9/11 on dealing with the Taliban could shut down their and other NGOs' access to U.S. government funding. The Afghan banks Roots of Peace relies on for paying their local staff and farmers have been closed or are allowing only minimal cash withdrawals.

    Much of their Afghan staff of over 300 are still trying to evacuate the country out of fear.

  • Man:

    You have got to get that bus moving in the next 30 seconds, or you're going to miss everything.

  • Man:

    U.S. passport, U.S. green cards. That is all that I can do.

  • Mike Cerre:

    During the height of the American evacuation at the Kabul Airport, the Kuhns flew to Istanbul to coordinate their evacuation efforts from a hotel room.

  • Heidi Kuhn:

    And we have been working night and day trying to get out 5 Afghans, primarily women and children who have taken a leadership effort in Roots of Peace for the last 20 years and now are highly at risk for working for an American NGO, because the Taliban has now learned that the Roots of Peace's CEO is an American woman.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Three busloads of their most at-risk staff braved the airport bombings and Taliban checkpoint beatings in their futile efforts to get on the last flights out.

  • Heidi Kuhn:

    Mainly children and women, no bathroom inside of the bus, wailing, screaming, crying. And it's dark. And we just had to live through that nightmare.

  • Mike Cerre:

    So, your family stayed outside the airport…

  • Man:

    Outside the airport, yes.

  • Mike Cerre:

    … 48 hours waiting to get into the airport to leave.

  • Man:

    Yes.

  • Mike Cerre:

    And they couldn't make it.

  • Man:

    And they couldn't make it.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Siawash (ph), who does not want to be seen, and the mostly Afghan emigre staff back at Roots of Peace's San Francisco Bay Area headquarters, are completing visa applications for their families and staff still trying to leave the country, and managing the critical Afghan harvest remotely on late-night Internet calls to their colleagues on the other side of the globe.

    Recent video sent back by their Afghanistan colleagues shows their harvest and export operations relatively back to normal since the takeover of the country. But there are still major concerns with the Taliban leadership's ability to control their fighters in the countryside.

  • Gary Kuhn:

    The Taliban supports us. They have sent a letter supporting us, saying that: We want you to stay, we respect your programs, and we want you to continue.

    We're using that as a shield to say, hey, your bosses are saying that you shouldn't be attacking us, you shouldn't be disrupting us. And so that's been very positive so far.

  • Mike Cerre:

    For those who are listening to this who are saying, well, this optimism is wonderful, but could it be slightly naive, do you think that the Taliban can get some level of normalcy back to this country?

  • Heidi Kuhn:

    Well, Roots of Peace is not naive. And May — March 28, 2014, we were attacked in a 4.5-hour gun battle by the Taliban. So, that was a defining moment for Gary and I, whether this had just gotten too tough, we were too naive, or we went the distance.

  • Gary Kuhn:

    The Taliban are promising lower taxes and a lot of good things, so that it's part of their charm campaign. This is actually kind of a honeymoon period for us, because we can operate without them coming in and possibly interfering. And we just want to do our work.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Roots of Peace and other NGOs' most immediate concerns are with the U.S. government. Will it formally recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan and lift its financial sanctions on them so NGOs can keep operating?

    Will the U.S. deliver on its promise of continuing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan now that the U.S. has left?

  • Gary Kuhn:

    So, we have to relax the sanctions or recognize the government and move beyond this. We have got to recognize the fact that it didn't go the way we wanted it to go, and let's deal with it and move on.

  • Mike Cerre:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre.

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