NATO to Target Afghan Drug Lords Who Aid Taliban

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 11, 2008

BUDAPEST, Oct. 10 -- NATO defense ministers reached a compromise agreement Friday that allows forces operating in Afghanistan to target heroin networks funding the Taliban. The deal, viewed by the Pentagon as critical to beating back a resurgent Taliban, essentially allows some members of the military alliance to opt out of counternarcotics operations.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, backed by Britain, had called on NATO allies to begin striking drug traffickers, who are a key source of funding for the Taliban's increasingly lethal insurgency. Gates estimated this week that as much as $80 million a year flows into the Taliban's coffers from the drug trade.

But some European countries, including Germany and Spain, said drug interdiction was beyond their mandate in Afghanistan and could incite Afghans who depend on income from growing opium poppies.

The agreement "allows some to do things that others did not want to do. It's better than nothing," Gates told reporters on a military flight to Washington after the two-day meeting in Budapest, the Hungarian capital. "You will see more willing to do this in the south than in other parts of the country. . . . I think obviously the United States and the U.K. are interested in doing this. I think there are several others who would."

The vast majority of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan occurs in seven southern provinces, areas patrolled by U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch forces.

The compromise allows NATO troops to act after receiving a request from the Afghans and does not require any change in the alliance's operational plan in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials said they supported a stepped-up NATO role in fighting the drug trade.

"We've asked NATO to please support us," Gen. Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan's defense minister, told reporters in Budapest on Thursday after meeting with his NATO counterparts.

The meeting of NATO defense ministers is the last scheduled during the Bush administration. Gates, reflecting on his time in office, expressed some satisfaction with the alliance's resilience in the face of a growing threat from the Taliban.

"I just observe that since I took this job, NATO has added nearly 10,000 troops, and in Afghanistan, the United States has added 11,000 troops in 20 months, 21 months," Gates said. "What has been impressive to me . . . as this situation has gotten more difficult, they've stayed the course and actually increased the number of people they have there. And I guess if I look back in that context, I'm fairly optimistic about the future."

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