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NATO says attacks on Afghan drug trade up

KABUL (Reuters) - NATO has stepped up attacks on the Afghan drugs trade since allies agreed last year they could carry out direct strikes on traffickers, but individual nations are still able to opt out of the deal, a spokesman said.

A U.S. Army soldier stands guard in front of marijuana plants beside an Afghan police station in the town of Panjwai Bazaar, some 50 km (31 miles) west of Kandahar, October 18, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Under pressure from the United States, NATO allies agreed in Budapest last October to allow their soldiers to carry out direct attacks on Afghan drug lords and laboratories to stem a trade that helps fund the Taliban insurgency.

The international community has poured millions of dollars into counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, but until last year’s resolution, NATO forces were not mandated to launch direct attacks on those involved in the drugs trade.

“There has been an increase in activity on our side in the last four months,” Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, said late on Monday.

“We have arrested more than 60 traffickers and destroyed four drug labs and seized around 44 tonnes of various drugs. This level of activity is higher than in the past,” he said.

Despite a marginal reduction on the previous year, in 2008 Afghanistan still produced more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of opium, a thick paste from poppy that is then processed to make highly addictive heroin and smuggled abroad.

But individual nations are still able to choose whether their soldiers carry out operations against drug lords or facilities.

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“In Budapest there was an agreement to do more, but there has to be an agreement by the nation to use its resources, they have to opt in,” said Blanchette.

Many of the 41 nations serving in Afghanistan under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) impose “caveats” on their soldiers which restrict where their troops can be deployed or their range of tasks.

Controversy emerged last month after a purported classified document from the alliance’s top commander was leaked to the media calling for the targeting of all drug traffickers whether or not evidence connected them to the insurgency.

But Blanchette said a new agreement had been reached and only those with a link to the insurgency could be targeted.

“(U.S.) General (John) Craddock had given a directive that was looked at ... and now there’s been an agreement,” said Blanchette.

“If there has been a demonstration that this person is linked to the insurgency then he becomes a legitimate target ... and that gives us a green light to use force,” he said.

At a security conference in Munich this week, Craddock told reporters operations to attack drug lords and laboratories would begin within the week.

While Afghan security forces were involved in eradicating poppy fields, Blanchette stressed ISAF forces were not involved in eradicating the drug.

Reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Jerry Norton