BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The United States called on NATO allies on Thursday to allow the alliance to attack the Afghan opium trade, which it said was bringing the Taliban up to $80 million a year.
NATO’s operations commander, Gen. John Craddock, has asked the 26 NATO countries for authority to attack laboratories, trafficking networks and drug lords to stem a trade helping to finance a worsening Taliban insurgency.
Germany and several other NATO states are wary of extending the role of the NATO mission, whose long-term aim is to create conditions for Afghans to take over responsibility for their own security.
Some are concerned it could worsen the violence and might cause civilian casualties that could turn Afghans against foreign forces.
Proponents of the plan argue it is essential if NATO is to reduce violence in the longer term, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the drugs trade was bringing the Taliban $60-$80 million a year.
“We need to have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try and interrupt this flow of cash,” he told reporters as NATO defense ministers met to discuss the issue in the Hungarian capital Budapest.
Diplomats say extending the NATO role to target the drugs trade would require unanimous agreement but see the possibility of a compromise if countries are allowed to opt in to the fight.
The United States has urged allies to send extra troops to Afghanistan. Commanders of the 50,700-strong NATO force are seeking up to 12,000 more, but European member states have been reluctant to commit additional numbers.
Gates nevertheless said he saw a clear willingness on the part of allies to prolong their Afghan commitment and added: “Several nations have announced increased troop levels for Afghanistan as well as extending their commitment.”
On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet agreed to increase the German force in Afghanistan by 1,000 to 4,500. But Berlin has long resisted Washington’s calls to send troops to the insurgent-troubled south.
Washington has urged countries in southeastern Europe, including aspiring NATO members, to send more troops.
The United States plans to increase its troop numbers from 33,000 now, which include 13,000 under NATO, but U.S. officials worry allies will see this as an excuse not to meet pledges.
Gates said he would press for a more comprehensive NATO approach to the war incorporating a quicker build-up of the Afghan army, more civilian aid and development as well as the counter-narcotics mission.
“We all recognize that there are significant challenges in Afghanistan and we need a better coordinated effort,” he said.
U.S. officials said this week Washington had asked Japan and NATO allies that have refused to send troops to Afghanistan to help pay the estimated $17 billion needed to build the Afghan army to a target strength of 134,000.
Seven years after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Britain’s military commander and ambassador in Afghanistan gave gloomy assessments of the effort to stabilize the country and said they thought the war against the Taliban could not be won.
Gates has dismissed such comments as defeatist but said part of the solution would be negotiating with members of the Taliban willing to work with the government in Kabul.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance would have to be in Afghanistan “several more long years” and that NATO members must also pursue military reforms and boost spending, despite the global financial crisis.
“The global financial crisis will certainly put a pressure on the national budgets, but we must defend our joint values and prepare for facing challenges,” he told the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag.