NATO commanders in Afghanistan wary of antidrug effort

The opium trade helps fund the insurgency but also provides farmers livelihood.

NATO leaders' agreement this fall to let their troops attack drug traffickers in Afghanistan held the promise of stemming the flow of funding for the violent insurgency here.

But military commanders now seem reluctant to go after the drug runners. NATO commanders in Afghanistan say they are holding back because of concerns over the legality of drug operations. But they may also be unwilling to conduct what is seen as a politically unpopular mission that could endanger their troops.

The country's multimillion-dollar opium industry is blamed for funding much of the bloody insurgency against US and allied troops.

Top NATO officials see differences in opinion between NATO's political leaders and the military commanders charged to do the work. "Now that we have a gap between the political authority granted and the legal interpretation of that order, it must be resolved," said Gen. Bantz Craddock, the supreme allied commander of Europe, earlier this month.

The new authority was granted at an October meeting of NATO ministers in Budapest. The agreement does not allow NATO troops to conduct sweeping eradication efforts such as torching fields, but lets them interdict facilities or personnel involved with drug trafficking.

But so far, NATO troops have not used the new authorization. Military officials cite legal concerns that, despite the Budapest agreement, it is inappropriate for the military to be used in a counternarcotics role – which is still seen as a criminal activity.

Current estimates suggest the $4 billion opium industry, which feeds a market for heroine and other drug products in Europe, could be sending as much as $500 million a year to Taliban and Al Qaeda operations including those in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is also an agricultural staple on which many Afghan farmers depend for their livelihood.

The southern sector of Afghanistan, where the bulk of opium grows, has about 18,000 troops from six countries currently commanded by a Dutch officer. The Netherlands, like other European allies, is averse to drug eradication programs for fear of alienating the local population and because of the risks associated with such operations, say US officials. Those officials note that commanders should distinguish between their NATO role and being part of their country's military.

NATO concerns that counternarcotics policy could alienate the very population it is trying to coopt are valid, acknowledges Seth Jones, a senior analyst at the military research group RAND, who recently visited Afghanistan. But he says security must come first.

"Talking about narcotics policy when you don't control territory is putting the cart before the horse," says Mr. Jones. "What ultimately will matter … is the ability to control areas." Once security is established, the Afghan justice system will need more "teeth" to convict traffickers, he adds.

Gen. David McKiernan, the top NATO and US commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview in Kabul this month that he was hopeful the matter could be addressed through more dialogue between NATO officials.

"What we know we're able to do is where we can make the connection between counternarcotics [and] a personality or a facility, a nexus target ... we can treat that as a military objective," General McKiernan said.

"There is agreement on the ground, but it is subject to national approvals and some of the precise language still needs to be worked out," he said.

Opium production remains strong here, though it has dropped from last year's "historic high water mark" of about 193,000 hectares of opium cultivated, according to the Afghan Opium Survey by the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime.

The survey says 98 percent of Afghanistan's opium is grown in seven of 34 provinces – all seven have a Taliban presence.

There are signs of some progress – the UN attributes the drop in poppy cultivation to drought and good local leadership by some Afghan governors who have discouraged its production.

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