BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A U.S. call for NATO to launch direct attacks on the drugs trade fueling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan ran into opposition from Germany and others on Thursday, but Berlin said it still hoped for an agreement.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said action was needed as drug money was being used to buy weapons to kill NATO soldiers. He also criticized NATO states for failing to provide enough troops, helicopters and trainers for the Afghan mission.
NATO operations commander Gen. John Craddock has asked the 26 NATO countries for authority to attack laboratories, trafficking networks and drug lords to stem a trade helping to finance a worsening Taliban insurgency.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak fully backed Craddock’s call on the first day of a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Budapest, a NATO spokesperson said.
However, Germany and some other NATO states including Spain, are wary of extending the role of the NATO mission, whose long-term aim is to create conditions for Afghans to take over responsibility for their own security.
Germany is concerned it could worsen the violence and pose a threat to its forces, which although stationed in the quieter north patrol trafficking routes out of Afghanistan.
Proponents of the plan say it is essential if NATO is to reduce violence in the longer term. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the drugs trade brought the Taliban $60 million-$80 million a year.
“We need to have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try and interrupt this flow of cash,” he told reporters.
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Germany was willing to assist in reconnaissance of trafficking routes and in training but any operations should be Afghan-led.
“If this keeps an Afghan face then it’s also in our interest that we support such an activity,” he told reporters. “I hope that NATO can reach an agreement tomorrow.”
Gates said allies were considering many options such as allowing allies to opt out of counter-narcotics operations.
The United States has urged allies to send extra troops to Afghanistan. Commanders of the 50,700-strong NATO force are seeking up to 12,000 more but some European member states have been reluctant to commit additional numbers.
De Hoop Scheffer told a news conference that a number of nations had pledged to boost their contingents but added: “We have to do better.”
The United States plans to increase its troop numbers from 33,000 now, which include 13,000 under NATO, but U.S. officials worry allies will see this as an excuse not to meet pledges.
Seven years after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Britain’s military commander and ambassador in Afghanistan gave gloomy assessments of the effort and said they thought the war against the Taliban could not be won.
De Hoop Scheffer said he did not agree the “gloom and doom” and said he saw many positive developments in Afghanistan.
Gates said he would press for a more comprehensive NATO approach to the war incorporating a quicker build-up of the Afghan army, more civilian aid and development as well as the counter-narcotics mission.
“We all recognize that there are significant challenges in Afghanistan and we need a better coordinated effort,” he said.
De Hoop Scheffer said NATO would have to be in Afghanistan “several more long years” and members must also pursue military reforms and boost spending, despite the global financial crisis.
“The global financial crisis will certainly put a pressure on the national budgets, but we must defend our joint values and prepare for facing challenges,” he told the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag.
“Transformation does not come on the cheap. The large majority of the allies aren’t doing what the should do.”
Additional reporting by Sandor Peto and Sabine Siebold