NATO must target drug lords in Afghanistan

The United States on Thursday pushed NATO allies to order their troops to target Afghanistan’s thriving heroin trade in a bid to stem the flow of drug money to the widening insurgency against the troubled international military mission.

A two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers comes amid an increase in violence that has created doubts about whether Western forces can win the war against the resurgent Taliban militants.

“If we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try and interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban, that seems to me like a legitimate security endeavor,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the meeting.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will seek more troops, equipment, funding and other contributions to the Afghan war from the allies.

The U.S. plans to beef up its own troop strength with an extra Army brigade early next year and as many as three additional brigades in the following months. The increases reflect concerns that Afghanistan is becoming the key battlefield in the fight against international terrorism.

NATO’s top commander believes cutting the estimated $100 million that the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies receive each year from Afghanistan’s heroin industry is one way to hit back.

“The money from the narcotics trade is feeding the insurgency, it buy weapons and it pays fighters,” U.S. Gen. John Craddock. “It is a cancer that fuels the insurgency.”

The Afghan police are too weak to tackle the problem and it’s time for the 50,000-strong alliance force to take on the drug runners, he said.

“NATO must step up to this task,” Craddock told defense experts in Brussels this week. “I’ve asked for expanded authority from NATO … to target laboratories and trafficking facilities.”

The U.S. and several European allies support him, but others have doubts. Although Craddock said he won’t target poor farmers who depend on opium poppies for a living, Germany, Italy and Spain worry a counter-narcotics campaign could lead to a backlash against international troops.

Those countries also fear widening the mission could overstretch the hard-pressed troops. They believe that taking the task away from the Afghans is a step backward in the goal to hand over security to local forces.

Craddock’s supporters hope talks between the NATO ministers and their Afghan counterpart Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak in Budapest could overcome doubts. Arriving for the meeting, Wardak said he would “like NATO to support our efforts in counter-drug campaign” as well as stepping up training for Afghan forces.

NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is in bad need of a boost following a spate of Taliban attacks, the acknowledgment that U.S. air strikes killed 30 civilians in August and the reported assertion by senior British commander Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith that “we’re not going to win this war.”

NATO officials criticized Carleton-Smith’s choice of words but insisted what the brigadier meant to say was in line with the alliance’s long-stated position: that military means alone cannot win the war and that Western nations must aid Afghanistan’s economic development and build up the police, legal system and other state institutions.

“Can there be an exclusively military solution to this? No, we have never suggested that there would be,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Tuesday.

The Afghan government is seeking talks with elements in the Taliban leadership in an effort at reconciliation and the two sides have reportedly had contacts in Saudi Arabia. NATO says any decision to open talks with the Taliban is up to the Afghan government but they will offer support.

Thirty-three thousand U.S. troops make up the bulk of international forces in Afghanistan, including 13,000 with the NATO-led force and 20,000 fighting the insurgency and training Afghan forces outside the NATO command.