The Afghan and U.S. governments have broken ground on an agricultural center and airport in the volatile southern province of Helmand, aimed at helping farmers grow food crops instead of opium poppies.
Helmand is one of the most fertile provinces in Afghanistan, but much of its agriculture is devoted to poppy farming and the province produced about half the world's opium last year.
Fighting between Taliban insurgents and mainly British and U.S. troops in Helmand makes it hard to transport perishable produce to market, while traffickers collect opium directly from the farms or farmers can safely store the drug for some 20 years.
The new Lashkar Gah airport will be the first purely civilian-controlled airport in troubled southern Afghanistan and will also boast a centre for processing and storing food products before they are flown to domestic and international markets.
"This is a deeply important project for Helmand," said Gulab Mangal, governor of Helmand, at a ceremony on Sunday afternoon attended by the deputy U.S. Ambassador and Afghan ministers.
"Reliable air transportation for both cargo and civilians is a critical component of developing Helmand province's economy," he said.
The ground-breaking ceremony was held at the provincial capital's existing airfield, a dirt air strip with a small, dilapidated terminal building built in the 1960s.
The entire project will cost $45 million and will be mostly funded by the U.S. development agency, USAID. The Afghan government is expected to contribute around $5 million.
Some $18 million will be allocated to paving the 2,200-meter (yard) runway, expanding and rehabilitating the terminal and constructing the agricultural centre.
The remainder will be spent on agricultural development in the province, ensuring markets for the farmers and providing technical assistance.
Fruit, not drugs
Helmand used to produce some of the region's best dried fruits, pomegranates and nuts. But insecurity has led farmers to switch to opium, a crop that also funds the Taliban insurgency, adding to insecurity and further boosting drug production.
The airport aims to open up markets for farmers to transport "high value" products such as pomegranates and raisins to international markets, a USAID official told Reuters.
The airport and agricultural development in the province is part of a larger counter-narcotics strategy to get farmers to switch from growing opium.
The Afghan government will be in charge of managing the new airport as well as providing security. A new police station and Helmand's first fire station will be built adjacent to the airport by the British Provincial Reconstruction Team, which will be able to serve not only the airport but the city itself.
Domestic passenger flights are expected to begin once the runway is completed this winter, providing a secure alternative to travelling by road.
Road travelers are often attacked by Taliban and bandits, especially in the southern provinces.