U.S. defense officials are pressing their NATO allies to do counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan, targeting an opium trade that fuels terror networks there.
So far, the effort has not been successful, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed some doubt that the allies could be convinced. As an interim measure, U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, the top NATO commander, said Wednesday that he would like allied forces to go after drug facilities where the opium is processed into heroin.
Craddock, who spent the last three days in Afghanistan, said that some nations are concerned that expanding into counter-drug raids might cause the traffickers and insurgents to attack NATO forces more ferociously.
"This is a totally specious argument," Craddock told reporters in Kabul. "What's more ferocious than IEDs (roadside bombs) and suicide bombs?"
Gates also acknowledged this week that "we're running into some flak," from the allies, and "I'm not sure whether we'll be successful."
U.S. forces don't focus on counter-narcotics missions, and instead are fighting insurgents and training the Afghan forces. Last week, after a stop in Afghanistan, Gates told reporters that if allied troops have the chance to take out a narcotics lab or arrest a drug kingpin, they should be able to do it.
To date, the counter-narcotics effort has largely been aimed at Afghan farmers, who rely on the drug trade for their livelihoods. This shift would target those who process the drugs rather than those who grow them.
Craddock said that by attacking the drug runners, coalition forces could cripple the insurgents "because they won't have the money to pay the bomb makers and buy the materials to attack us."
Drought and anti-drug campaigns helped slash Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation by 19 percent this year compared to 2007, but a U.N. report said the country is still the world's leading source of the heroin-producing crop.
Anti-poppy campaigns in the north and east led to a drop in production there, but fields in Taliban strongholds in the south are providing higher yields. Taliban militants could still reap as much as $70 million from the harvest.
"One of the issues that the alliance has to address is the role that we play in the counter-narcotics effort," Gates told reporters in London last week. "Given how tied in it is with all the other issues in Afghanistan, that's something we ought to be willing to take on in some way. And I think that's something we'll be talking about."
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the issue may come up next month when Gates and other NATO defense ministers meet in Hungary.