Hi Hillary, waddaya really, really want?

Last time Hillary Clinton cornered a New Zealand politician she got what she wanted: 71 Kiwi SAS troops for special operations in Afghanistan. So what does she really, really want this time?

US Secretaries for State do not travel for fun. They visit for a purpose, and their purpose is going to get more face space than ours while they are here a point that seems to escape most New Zealand media.

The notion that Hillary Clinton is flashing through New Zealand this week to conduct “business as usual” – as the Dominion Post put it – is laughable. At the other end of the scale, so is the heavily hyped idea that Trade Minister Tim Groser might talk Clinton into a US-NZ collaboration to conclude the stalled Doha trade liberalisation negotiations within the new 2010 deadline. Ditto, the delusion that our two countries will set aside our differences over nuclear arms and power and return to the close, old ANZUS-style mutual defence relationship, ship visits and all. Likewise, the spur-of-the-moment hope that we might join together to do something to stop Japan slaughtering whales in the Antarctic.

Clinton is a realist. Her president’s preoccupations are the reconstruction of the US domestic economy, finding ways to extricate the US from the expensive, unproductive burden of George W. Bush’s global war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, patching flaws in its homeland security, and in limiting prospects for another nuclear arms race in the developing world. Bluntly, we are not going to be a critical player in any of those battles.

So what does the material gal of US politics really, really want from New Zealand right now?

The one piece of seriously troubled ground we share in the international arena is Afghanistan. Currently, the White House is reported to be chafing at the lack of urge in its own military surge there. Our SAS troops are already on station at the sharp end of the surge, and a request for more New Zealand troops seems highly unlikely.

Washington seems to have got the message that the New Zealand Defence Force is operating at full-stretch in terms of its international deployments. The new US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, was certainly fulsome with his praise for the kiwi commitment during his testimony to Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last November. 

The most immediate and critical issue facing Washington and Wellington is: what do we do about Hamid Karzai? The probable answer is keep applying pressure to see he delivers his inauguration promise to address the real issues confronting Afghan society: security, good governance, corruption, national unity and cooperation with the country’s neighbours so as to address drug trafficking and other cross-border threats to stability.

The United Nations seems ready to move on from the fraud and corruption clouded Afghan presidential election and accept the inevitable: Karzai finally achieved an uncontested victory. “The election produced results that were ultimately accepted,” says UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Karzai still has to win approval from the Afghan parliament for his cabinet nominees. Seventeen of his 24 first round nominees were rejected. His proposed replacements are currently under fire for being “unknown” or “inexperienced”. At least, they have not been accused or war crimes or involvement in the illicit narcotics trade – yet. But what happens if Karzai does not have his ministry together by the end of this month, when Afghanistan’s donor nations meet in London?

The London donors conference is to focus on an acceleration of the training and development of the Afghan army and police the start of a gradual transfer of authority from international to Afghan security forces. It was intended to establish measurable targets for progress.

Last December, an Afghan army spokesman, Zaher Azimi, said the United States had already pledged $16 billion to spend on training and equipping Afghanistan's army and air force. However, in an interview with Al Jazeera, President Karzai now says despite the presence of 100,000 foreign troops in his country, he does not need the “favour” of the international community. He is not going to ask for more money in London. Instead, he will ask countries to “stop arresting Afghans” and to reduce civilian casualties.

With the Afghan parliamentary election scheduled for May, Karzai’s message is an obvious appeal to the voters at home. It leaves the United States with a simple choice: call his bluff and start withdrawing, or hang in there and add a civilian aid surge to its military surge strategy.

This may be where we come in.

The US has been exploring the agricultural potential of Afghanistan – beyond its poppy fields. The US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, Clinton’s campaign manager in the race for the Democrat’s presidential nomination, is leading the charge.

Vilsack trots out some telling statistics. Eighty percent of Afghans earn their money from agriculture, but only 50% of the arable land is under cultivation. Roughly $2,500 per hectare can be generated from the production and sale of poppies. In table grapes, the same hectare could produce as much $18,000. In apples, it could be somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $4,000 per hectare.

The US has phased out its support for the eradication of the poppy crop, in favour of interdiction in drug trafficking. Eradication was simply driving farmers into the arms of the Taliban, while interdiction hits the drug lords and criminals who foment anti-government activity.

Vilsack says the United States will now align its agricultural assistance with a framework that was recently developed by the Afghan Government to increase agricultural productivity, regenerate an agri-business economy, and rehabilitate natural resources with particular emphasis on watersheds and irrigation systems.

New Zealand’s experience in high country flock and herd management, building irrigation systems in rugged terrain, and forest planting are all assets capable of employment in a green revolution that could convert Afghanistan from a blast damaged battleground into a new food basket for central Asia.

Maybe, this in the kind of intervention in Afghanistan that many New Zealanders would support.