Gates Urges NATO to Take On Afghan Drug Traffickers

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 10, 2008

BUDAPEST, Oct. 9 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called on NATO allies Thursday to target Afghanistan's drug traffickers as part of a wider effort to confront a resurgent Taliban, which he said is using heroin money to fund the insurgency.

But the proposed new front in the war is meeting resistance from some European allies who argue that a counternarcotics campaign goes beyond the mandate of international forces in Afghanistan and is the responsibility of the Afghan government. Countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain also fear that drug interdiction could endanger their troops if it alienates segments of a population dependent on the cultivation of opium poppies.

"My approach was that we are not talking about a counternarcotics strategy; that route really is the Afghans' responsibility," Gates told a small group of U.S. and European journalists Thursday evening during a two-day summit here of NATO defense ministers. "What we are talking about is greater freedom to track down the networks of those who are funding the Taliban, which happens to be drug money."

Gates said earlier Thursday that the Taliban makes $60 million to $80 million annually from drug trafficking. Gates, however, ruled out any large crop-eradication campaign, which would probably alienate the country's farmers, many of whom survive on income from growing opium poppies.

European skeptics of the U.S. proposal have argued that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan lacks the legal mandate to conduct counternarcotics operations in any form. Some NATO troops, following their governments' interpretation of their role, have ignored even overt drug running in their areas of operation.

The NATO meeting comes at a time of growing alarm in Washington about a war against an enemy that combines the Taliban, parts of al-Qaeda and networks of local militants. U.S. officials argue that drug money is corrupting central and local authorities. "We know that corruption is a problem in the Afghan government, and to a considerable extent that corruption is fueled by narcotics," Gates said.

Both Gates and NATO officials noted that the problem is largely confined to seven provinces in the south. NATO spokesman James Appathurai, citing U.N. figures at a news conference Thursday, noted that poppy cultivation has fallen 20 percent this year, and 18 of 34 provinces are poppy-free.

"Where there is not enough progress is in the south, where you have a lethal nexus between insurgency and poppy," Appathurai said. "The Taliban in this area is like any mafia, protecting the crop, taking its percentage, using it to fund the insurgency."

Gates said the ministers are considering the possibility of a U.S.-led campaign against drug traffickers separate from NATO operations.

"One of the issues is whether people can in essence opt out, whether individual governments who do not want their forces to be engaged in this, to be involved in any way, can do that and not block others," Gates said. "I think that there are some concerns. There is merit to them. First of all, do you further antagonize some of the Afghan people by doing anything in this respect? There is a concern that it might put more soldiers in harm's way."

Gates said the United States will share the results of an Afghanistan strategy review nearing completion in Washington. The United States plans to boost its current troop level of about 33,000 by three brigades, or 12,000 to 14,000 troops. The number of non-U.S. forces in Afghanistan, about 30,000, has increased by 10,000 since last year. The United States would like to see NATO allies increase their deployments of troops and equipment, not draw down as more U.S. forces pour in.

But Gates stressed that bolstering the military is just one aspect of any new strategy.

"I think we all recognize that there are significant challenges in Afghanistan and we need a better-coordinated effort between civilian economic development and reconstruction efforts and the security efforts," he said.

The Pentagon chief also emphasized the need to build up the Afghanistan army, which the United States would like to see double in size to more than 130,000 troops. "We need to have the Afghans in the lead," Gates said. "There is I think broad support for expanding the Afghan army and doing that as quickly as possible."

The United States is seeking financial support from countries that do not have troops in Afghanistan, such as Japan, to pay for the expansion of Afghan forces. The Pentagon estimates that building up the Afghan army could cost $17 billion.

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