BRUSSELS NATO Wednesday rejected Russian calls for it to eradicate opium poppy fields in Afghanistan, saying the best way for Moscow to help control the drug would be to give more assistance against the insurgency.
Russia's anti-drugs czar, Victor Ivanov, met NATO ambassadors in Brussels and proposed that NATO troops be given a U.N. mandate and an obligation to eradicate Afghan opium crops, which were killing 30,000 Russians a year.
But NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the drug problem had to be handled carefully to avoid alienating local people. He said the alliance was continuing efforts to target drug lords and drug labs, but added at a news briefing:
"We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income of people who live in the second poorest country in the world without being able to provide them with an alternative."
Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of poppies used to make opium, the key ingredient in the production of heroin.
Appathurai said NATO understood Russian concerns, given its estimated 200,000 heroin and morphine addicts and the tens of thousands dying each year.
"SLIGHT DIFFERENCE OF VIEWS"
"We share the view that it has to be tackled," the spokesman said. "But there is a slight difference of views. Out of Moscow we hear a lot of calls for eradication. The view of the Afghan government up until now is that eradication is not the way to go ... in particular aerial spraying."
"We have 120,000 people on the ground fighting the insurgency and that is the most effective way to tackle the drug problem."
Appathurai said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had asked Russia for increased support in Afghanistan, including in training counter-narcotics officials and helicopters for the overall counter-insurgency effort.
"We are still waiting for an answer, but we know the Russian Federation is working on it," he said.
Appathurai said the Taliban had stock-piled so much opium that destroying existing crops would make little difference.
NATO's counter-insurgency operation in Marjah has put in place conditions for better governance to allow the creation of alternative livelihoods, "and a sustainable solution that does not just create more enemies."
Monday, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, expressed concern about plans by U.S. Marines in Marjah to pay farmers to destroy opium crops without a fight instead of NATO troops destroying them.
He said NATO needed to continue to deal with the drugs problem in an "active and robust way."
Ivanov said drugs were killing 100,000 Afghans a year and quoted U.N. figures showing that annual deaths from heroin overdoses in the more 40 than countries contributing to the NATO mission in Afghanistan were 50 times higher than their total military losses, which stand at nearly 1,600 in eight years.
"Is that not a threat to world peace and security?" he said, adding that there was a need to take a new view on the scale of the threat. "I believe this is a question of morality," he said.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)