March 24, 2010 / 5:47 PM / 10 years ago

NATO rejects Russian call for Afghan drug removal

* NATO says counter-insurgency best way to beat drugs trade

* Alliance seeks more practical help from Moscow

By David Brunnstrom

BRUSSELS, March 24 (Reuters) - NATO rebuffed a Russian call for it to eradicate opium poppy fields in Afghanstan, saying on Wednesday that Moscow could do more to help fight drug trafficking by Taliban insurgents if it wanted.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin made clear on Monday that Moscow was concerned about reports of plans by NATO to give up on destroying poppy fields, including in territories taken from the Taliban.

He spoke after U.S. Marines battling over the Taliban stronghold of Marjah said they were introducing a programme to pay opium poppy farmers to destroy their own crops without a fight, instead of NATO troops destroying the poppies.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the problem had to be handled carefully to avoid alienating local people, and the alliance continued to target drug lords and drug labs.

"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," he told a news briefing.

Appathurai said NATO understood Russian concerns, given U.N. estimates that Russia had more than 200,000 heroin and morphine addicts and 30,000 dying from addiction each year.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had asked Moscow for increased support in Afghanistan, including more help 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 there was "a slight difference of views" on how best to tackle the drugs problem in Afghanistan, the world’s top producer of poppies used to make opium, a key ingredient in the production of heroin.

"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," he said.

"We have 120,000 people on the ground fighting the insurgency and that is the most effective way to tackle the drug problem."

The Taliban had stockpiled so much opium that taking action to destroy existing crops would make little difference, he said.

NATO’s counter-insurgency operation in Marjah had 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".

At the United Nations, Churkin indicated Russia wanted U.S. and other NATO forces to continue destroying Afghan poppy fields themselves, saying they should continue to deal with the threat in an "active and robust way". (editing by Paul Taylor)

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