Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on NATO allies Thursday to target drug lords running Afghanistan's flourishing heroin trade as part of a wider effort to confront a resurgent Taliban.
“Part of the problem that we face is that the Taliban makes somewhere between 60 and 80 or more million dollars a year from the drug trafficking,” said Gates, who is attending a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers. “The drug trafficking is not only corrosive of good governance because it contributes to corruption. It also directly funds the people who are killing Afghans, Americans and all of our coalition partners there.”
Gates, however, ruled out any large-scale crop eradication campaign, which would likely alienate the country's farmers, many of whom survive on income from growing opium poppies.
Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defense minister, said in Budapest that he would “like NATO to support our efforts in a counter-drug campaign.”
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The potential consequences of a crackdown on the drug trade have been a source of division among the allies. Countries such as Germany and Spain fear that it could fuel support for the Taliban, and NATO troops have often ignored even overt drug running.
Gates, however, hopes to impress on his colleagues that battling the narcotics trade is a critical front in reversing Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation.
“I don't think anyone in the alliance is interested in eradicating crops or doing things that involve individual farmers,” said Gates. “But if we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try and interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban, that seems to me like a legitimate security endeavor.”
The NATO meeting comes against the backdrop of a growing alarm in Washington that the war in Afghanistan is in trouble in the face of an increasingly sophisticated and deadly enemy, which combines the Taliban, parts of al-Qaeda and networks of local militants.
Gates said the United States will share the results of an Afghanistan strategy review nearing completion in Washington. The U.S. military is already planning to boost its current troop level of around 33,000 by another three brigades, or 12,000 to 14,000 troops. The United States also would like to see NATO allies increase their deployment of troops and equipment, not draw down as more U.S. forces pour in.
But Gates stressed that bolstering the military is just one aspect of any new strategy.