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Gates Says US, NATO Should Fight Drug Trade in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan should take on the country's narcotics trafficking problem as part of their military mission in the country. VOA's Al Pessin reports from London, where Gates is preparing for a NATO defense ministers' meeting on Friday.

Secretary Gates says NATO must address the narcotics issue because the money it generates funds a variety of insurgent groups. Currently, fighting the drug trade is specifically not part of the mission of U.S. and NATO troops.

"It seems to me that if we or ISAF (the NATO force) encounter the opportunity to take out drug labs, or to arrest or take action against drug lords, kingpins, that's an opportunity, given how tied in it is with all the other issues in Afghanistan that that's something we ought to be willing to take on in some way," Gates said.

Secretary Gates says NATO has been considering such a plan for some time, and he expects discussion of it on the sidelines of Friday's meeting, which will focus on modernizing the alliance. He says the Afghan drugs issue could be addressed more formally at a ministerial level meeting in Budapest early next month.

Gates arrived in London late Wednesday after a 22-hour visit to Afghanistan, where he heard from U.S. commanders about the complex set of insurgent and terrorist groups they face. The secretary says recent Pakistani efforts to close safe havens the groups have in its border area have had "some considerable effectiveness."

He also addressed concerns expressed by Afghan officials about a series of incidents in which U.S. air strikes have accidentally killed dozens of civilians. Secretary Gates conveyed his "sincere condolences and personal regrets," and says he ordered commanders to be even more careful in their decisions about which targets to bomb.

He also says he told the commanders to pay compensation for such deaths even if they are not sure who died or who is responsible. He says that is an "acceptable cost" to counter insurgent propaganda about the incidents, and will send the "strategic" message that the United States is a partner and friend of the Afghan people.