NATO-led troops in Afghanistan were given a green light Friday to go after the country's illicit drug network, believed to be the major source of funding for the resurgent Taliban. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kabul.
The defense ministers from the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have agreed to permit direct attacks on those involved in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan.
The 50,000 troops in the country of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, will now be allowed to attack drug facilities, the trafficking network and the drug lords.
Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of opium, which is made into heroin. It is estimated that the Taliban are receiving upwards of $100 million dollars from the drug trade to fund their war against Afghanistan's government.
France, Germany and Spain argued that the Kabul government should carry out such missions. They fear that foreign troops attempting to destroy the lucrative drug network will alienate Afghans and raise the number of casualties among alliance soldiers.
NATO Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, speaking to reporters in Brussels, says after two days of talks, a compromise was reached.
"Ministers agreed today that based on the request which came to us from the Afghan government, of course consistent with the existing and appropriate resolutions of the United Nations Security council, and under the old plan which we have in Afghanistan, ISAF can. But it will do it in concert with the Afghans, act against facilities or facilitators supporting the insurgency, and if that happens, it happens subject to the authorization of specific nations," he said.
An appeal to the defense ministers from Afghanistan's General Abdul Wahim Wardak appeared to sway those nations which had reservations about involving NATO in interdiction of the multi-billion dollar narcotics trade.
The Afghan Defense Minister says he asked NATO to support Kabul's effort to destroy the labs, seize the drugs and block the chemical precursors used to make heroin from coming into the country.
The United States had pushed for ISAF to take on such missions.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his way back home from Europe told reporters that the counter-narcotics effort would now be part of regular military operations in Afghanistan and not run as special missions.
Gates also says he suggested at the Brussels meeting the allies temporarily boost their force levels next year to provide protection for Afghanistan's planned presidential election. But he adds the proposal has yet to be discussed by his NATO colleagues.
Despite a reluctance by some NATO members to increase troop levels, Gates declares himself optimistic, saying there is an "understanding NATO can't fail in Afghanistan."
Increasing violence in Afghanistan has allowed the Taliban to regain influence, especially in the southern part of the country, where most of the opium poppies are cultivated.