NATO allows strikes on Afghan drug sites

BUDAPEST: Signaling a major shift in strategy for the trans-Atlantic alliance, NATO defense ministers agreed Friday to allow direct attacks on Afghanistan’s drug networks.

The accord means that troops will be able to attack drug operations provided they obtain authorization from their own governments. NATO officials stressed that only drug producers aiding the insurgency would be targeted. The alliance actions will not be open-ended, lasting only until the Afghan security forces are able to take on the task themselves.

“NATO can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, subject to the authorization of respective nations,” an alliance spokesman, James Appathurai, said after lengthy discussions Thursday and Friday among the ministers in the Hungarian capital.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has repeatedly asked NATO to take on more responsibility for dealing with the drug lords. It is unclear, however, if the alliance will need a new UN Security Council resolution. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, operates under a UN mandate.

Germany and several other NATO member states have always been wary about extending the NATO role in Afghanistan, particularly combating drugs, which they believe is a civilian task. Furthermore, the German government – under pressure from the opposition to come up with an exit strategy, or even withdraw all its troops – is concerned that violence will increase and NATO forces will be more exposed.

The decision Friday was reached after considerable pressure from the U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, and the NATO supreme commander, General John Craddock.

“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,” said a Pentagon press secretary, Geoff Morrell.

Throughout the two days of talks, Gates and Craddock had argued that the trafficking networks and drug trade had helped fund the Taliban insurgency, providing them with manpower and weapons. The amount that the Taliban is earning from the drug trade is up to $100 million a year, according to Craddock. Over 90 percent of the heroin that reaches Europe comes from Afghanistan, according to the UN.

NATO defense ministers will review the success of the mission when they meet next February in Poland.

Gates and Craddock also asked NATO and the other countries, which have 37,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with 13,000 U.S. soldiers, to send more reinforcements, helicopters and medical evacuation aircraft that, until now, have been in extremely short supply.

So far, the response by the Europeans has been mixed and according to the NATO secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, disappointing.

This week, Germany, which has 3,500 troops based in the relatively quiet north of the country, agreed to send a further 1,000 troops over the next 14 months. They will be restricted by limitations set by the German Parliament that prevent the country’s troops from being sent to the more dangerous south.

In the south, British, Canadian, Dutch and Australian forces have taken on the brunt of the fighting, especially over the past few months as the Taliban insurgency spreads. The British commander on the ground, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, warned this week it would be impossible to defeat the Taliban and even suggested that dialogue be opened with some sections of the Taliban.

Meanwhile, NATO ministers held talks with Georgia in the new NATO-Georgia Commission, which was established after Russian troops occupied two breakaway enclaves in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The United States reiterated its support for Georgia’s eventual membership to NATO, a step that Russia strongly opposes.

By Judy Dempsey
Published: October 10, 2008

Source: International Herald Tribune

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