Deal reached for tougher Afghan drug action

By David Brunnstrom and Kristin Roberts, Reuters

BUDAPEST — NATO allies reached a deal on Friday on a U.S. call for direct attacks on the Afghan drugs trade that the alliance’s military commander said is key to bringing security to the country, the alliance said.

NATO operations commander Gen. John Craddock has asked for the alliance force in Afghanistan to be allowed to attack laboratories, trafficking networks and drug lords to stem a trade that helps fund the Taliban insurgency.

A NATO spokesman said NATO defence ministers reached an agreement that tougher action by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) could be taken based on requests by the Afghan government and U.N. Security Council resolutions under the alliances current operations plan.

“ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency subject to the authorization of respective nations,” James Appathurai said after discussions among the ministers in Budapest.

Germany and some other NATO states including Spain, have been wary of extending the role of the NATO mission. Berlin is concerned it could worsen the violence and increase the risk to its forces, which although stationed in the quieter north patrol trafficking routes out of Afghanistan.

At the Budapest meeting, Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak fully backed Craddock’s call for more robust NATO action.

Proponents say the plan is essential if NATO is to reduce violence.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday the drugs trade brought the Taliban US$60-US$80 million a year.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on Thursday action was needed as drug money was being used to buy weapons that kill NATO soldiers.

Craddock and Gates argued tackling the narcotics business was a fundamental part of the strategy to defeat the Taliban and allow the Afghan government to establish control throughout the country.

“NATO is charged with a safe and secure environment,” Craddock told Reuters in an interview on Thursday. “You cannot have a safe and secure environment with a scourge of narcotics rampant.”

The top U.S. military officer, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, warned on Thursday that violence in Afghanistan would escalate in 2009 unless the United States and other countries moved quickly to counter an intensifying Taliban insurgency with troops and assistance.

Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters the United States, NATO and other countries had failed so far to forge the kind of strategic unity necessary to stem the rise in violence.

Craddock blamed NATO allies’ failure to deliver needed resources for commanders’ inability to control violence in Afghanistan that has soared for more than two years due to a resurgent Taliban that now dominates swaths of territory.