NATO Commander Targets Afghan Opium Trade

After a visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, says he wants a mandate to go after the opium trade. Western troops now have no authority to eradicate poppy fields or go after traffickers. Craddock says unless a change is made, the alliance cannot defeat the Taliban insurgency.

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Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium. In fact, that's an understatement. Afghanistan produces 92 percent of the world's opium right now. The Taliban and other insurgents who protect the narcotics industry earn as much as $100 million per year from it. That's according to the United Nations. NATO troops in Afghanistan cannot use force to stop opium production and the drug trade, but the alliance's top commander says that policy needs to change. Reporter Teri Schultz accompanied supreme NATO commander General John Craddock on a recent visit to Afghanistan.

TERI SCHULTZ: Assessing NATO's operations in Afghanistan, Craddock says there's an urgent need to strike at the drug trade and that he's frustrated by the lack of support for such a move among the NATO allies.

General JOHN CRADDOCK (Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO): They're not listening.

SCHULTZ: Craddock is trying to dissuade European leaders from the view that anti-drug actions would target struggling farmers and thus increase support for the Taliban and that it's a problem the Afghan authorities can and should handle by themselves. Under NATO's present mandate, troops are only allowed to share intelligence about drug trafficking with Afghan authorities and to advise them. Craddock insists it's not enough.

General CRADDOCK: The fact is that the soldiers, the airmen, the Marines of NATO are being killed because of the money generated from this industry. And as a commander, I cannot let that continue without doing everything I can to stop it.

SCHULTZ: He explains that while Afghanistan's anti-drug forces are having some impact, their numbers and reach are insufficient. He wants NATO to give temporary permission for the use of military force against trafficking rings and the laboratories where they convert $100 kilograms of opium into $3,500 kilograms of heroin.

General CRADDOCK: If we can destroy that at the processing facility, or after it's made interdict the traffickers, we can hurt the traffickers at the highest level, we take money away from the insurgency, and you take money away from the corrupt officials. ..TEXT: SCHULTZ: NATO's top counter-narcotics officer in Afghanistan, British Wing Commander Chris Bishop(ph), shares Craddock's view.

Commander CHRIS BISHOP (Counter-Narcotics Officer, NATO): If we don't address the drug's piece, then we're not going to defeat the insurgency. ..TEXT: SCHULTZ: The United Nations says that while overall opium production in Afghanistan is down slightly this year, cultivation in the south and east is up, and the figures are dramatic. Helmand Province alone, with a population of well under one million, produces half the world's opium. The U.N. has thrown its weight behind the drive for a more rigorous NATO assault on the drug trade. Christopher Alexander with the U.N.'s Assistance Mission says stabilizing the country is simply not possible unless both insurgents and traffickers are defeated.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan): They have a shared interest. They have an interest in not having government authority extended to the areas where their heroin laboratories are, in not seeing the police emerge as an honest, credible force on the highways and other routes that they use to traffic opium and heroin.

SCHULTZ: NATO officials say attacks with improvised explosive devices are up 50 percent this year, and insurgents are getting other more sophisticated weapons as well. That, notes Craddock, requires cash.

General CRADDOCK: Look, the U.N. says 60 to 100 million dollars a year goes into the Taliban coffers from the narcotics business. If it takes two or three years to double the size of the Afghan counter-narcotics force, that's 180 to 300 million dollars. That's a lot of bombs, that's a lot of bomb makers, that's a lot of bullets. They're killing our kids. We can't wait.

SCHULTZ: If the policy change has not been approved within the next couple of weeks, Craddock will continue his campaign at next month's NATO defense ministers meeting in Hungary. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz.

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