NATO joins war on Afghan opium trade

In a departure from its military role in Afghanistan, NATO will target opium trade there in a bid to stop hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money from reaching Taliban-led insurgents, the alliance announced Friday.


NATO forces will from now on directly target Afghanistan's opium trade to stop hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money from reaching Taliban-led insurgents, the alliance announced Friday.

NATO has generally avoided tackling drugs, with many members fearful of compromising support from ordinary Afghans, including many poor farmers dependent on such crops for their livelihood.

But the Taliban, ousted from power seven years ago by a US-led coalition, has been reaping close to 100 million dollars a year from the opium trade and using the funds to buy weapons to fight NATO troops.

At talks in the Hungarian capital Budapest, NATO defence ministers decided to let individual nations -- on a voluntary basis -- hunt down drug lords and laboratories, with the consent of the Afghan government.

"All 26 allies have agreed that this will be done," the head of the alliance, Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, told reporters.

His spokesman said the ministers agreed that the NATO-led security force "can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, subject to the authorisation of respective nations."

The spokesman, James Appathurai, said the agreement came with a number of conditions, most notably that it happen in line with UN Security Council resolutions and under NATO's existing operational plan.

He declined to go into detail about the deal but said ministers would review the plan, which essentially gives NATO troops the green light to hunt down drug lords and laboratories, when they meet in Poland in February.

NATO leads a 51,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan but the Taliban, backed by Al-Qaeda fighters, is undermining its efforts to spread the Kabul government's influence across the country.

Despite this, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania and Spain had led opposition against officially diving into the drug war in earnest for the first time, believing that the Afghans themselves should drive such efforts.

"Our soldiers are killed from time to time by the profits and the consequences of this," Scheffer said.

Afghanistan is a source of some 92 percent of the world's opium and heroin.

Friday's agreement would allow governments to tackle the "high end" opium trade if they wanted to, but not tie the hands of those nations unwilling to take part, a NATO official said.

"This means that the United States and Britain have free rein" to take action, a NATO diplomat said.

"Germany will continue to act in coordination with Afghan forces," he said.

Senior NATO officials say that Afghanistan's drug problem has been largely brought under control, except for seven provinces in the lawless south of the country, where many of the insurgents have been operating.

US, British, Canadian and Dutch NATO forces are deployed in the south, while German troops are based in the relatively quiet north of the country.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had led the charge for new steps to be taken, welcomed the agreement.

"Secretary Gates is extremely pleased that after two days of thoughtful discussion NATO has decided to allow ISAF forces to take on the drug traffickers who are fueling the insurgency, destabilizing Afghanistan and killing our troops," a Pentagon spokesman said.

Gates underlined Thursday that the new approach would not see NATO countries burning poppy fields and will leave Kabul in charge of the overall counter-narcotics strategy.

A senior US official said the decision "now gives the commander flexibility to go after drug labs and king pins."

He said that no one country would be able to veto such operations, but they could choose whether or not to take part.

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