The U.S. Defense Department is denying a New York Times report that it is targeting Afghan drug traffickers, saying instead that it targets terrorists who work with the traffickers to finance terror operations.
The New York Times reported that 50 Afghan drug traffickers have been put on the U.S. target list, giving them the same priority as insurgent leaders. The Times says the decision is in a report being prepared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, based partly on statements by two American generals serving in Afghanistan.
Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged the link between the Afghan drug trade and violent groups, but said the U.S. military is careful to distinguish between Afghans who depend on the drug trade for their livelihood and terrorists who use the drug trade to finance attacks.
"We target terrorists linked to the drug trade, not drug traffickers with links to terrorism. And there is a difference. I am not going to get into any sort of target lists or anything like that," Whitman said. "But what I would say is where terrorists do interface with drug networks that produces a security threat, a force protection threat, and is a legitimate target."
Whitman said the link between the Afghan drug trade and terror financing is well known. U.S. officials have estimated terrorists and insurgents get $80-million a year from drug trafficking. But Whitman says the fight against the violent groups is separate from the fight against the drug trade.
"We do not do or conduct counter-narcotics operations. That is a law enforcement activity," he said.
Whitman says civilian U.S. government agencies work with the Afghan government on the narcotics issue, while the U.S. military focuses on security.
The counter-narcotics effort is a sensitive subject in Afghanistan. U.S. officials acknowledge direct action, like destroying opium poppy crops, often turns Afghans against their government and foreign countries trying to help it. American and other international officials are taking a different approach to the problem, trying to provide alternate crops for the Afghan farmers, and protection from the insurgent and terrorist groups that try to force them to plant the lucrative poppies.