A U.S. military "kill or capture" list of 367 wanted insurgents in Afghanistan includes 50 major drug traffickers who give money to Taliban militants, U.S. military commanders told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
U.S. and NATO troops are attacking drug warehouses and militant-linked narco dealers in Afghanistan for the first time this year, a new strategy to counter the country's booming opium poppy and heroin trade. NATO defense ministers approved the targeted drug raids late last year, saying the link between Taliban insurgents and the drug trade was clear.
According to a report to be issued by the committee this week, U.S. commanders have no restrictions on the use of force against the targets, "which means they can be killed or captured on the battlefield," the report states.
When the nexus between a drug trafficker and the insurgency is clear enough, the drug trafficker is put on a list of insurgent leaders wanted by U.S. forces, said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan.
"The list of targets are those that are contributing to the insurgency, so the key leadership, and part of that obviously is the link between the narco industry and the militants," Smith said Monday.
To be placed on this target list, formally called the "joint integrated prioritized target list," requires two verifiable human sources and "substantial additional evidence," the report says.
The U.S. military does not conduct operations against narcotics dealers who are not involved in the insurgency, because those individuals are dealt with by law enforcement agencies, according to Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a U.S. military spokeswoman.
"It's terrorists with links to the drug trade rather than drug traffickers with links to terrorism," said Lt. Col. Todd Vician, another U.S. military spokesman.
The existence of militant-linked drug traffickers on a wanted list of insurgents is a fairly recent development, following that NATO change in policy, though the individuals likely were known to the military before then, Smith said.
The majority of the wanted drug traffickers are in southern Afghanistan, where the drug trade is strongest, though "there are links elsewhere dealing with trafficking," Smith said.
U.S. Marines and Afghan forces have found and destroyed hundreds of tons of poppy seeds, opium and heroin in southern Afghanistan this summer in raids that troops were not allowed to carry out a year ago.
In another major U.S. policy shift, the U.S. announced in June it would no longer support the destruction of individual farmers' poppy plants, and instead would increase attacks on drug warehouses.
For years, the U.S. strategy has centered on training Afghan forces to eradicate farmers' poppy fields by hand. But such efforts never destroyed a significant portion of the crops. Farmers complained that the program targeted small, helpless poppy growers and passed over more powerful land owners, and the forces came under constant attack by militants.
Linking the fight against Taliban or al-Qaida insurgents to people seen driving the country's illegal drugs trade is an issue that has long stirred debate inside NATO.
The top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, said last month that the Taliban gets more money from donors in oil-rich Persian Gulf nations than from drugs.
European governments have never shared U.S. enthusiasm to use military power in a counternarcotics strategy, and last fall's decision by NATO to declare war against drug labs and traffickers in Afghanistan has not silenced critics.
"NATO policy is that if there is a direct nexus between drugs and funding the insurgency, then NATO has a role," said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero.
Placing drug traffickers on a wanted list of Afghan militants will significantly hurt insurgents, according to Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The Taliban insurgency "is only sustainable thanks to the roughly $300-400 million in drug revenues it earns annually from controlling or taxing the narcotics trade, and from the failures of the Afghan state to connect with the Afghan people, leaving vast and ungoverned swathes of the country subject to parallel administration by the Taliban," Twining said.
However, Fabrice Pothier, head of Brussels-based Carnegie Europe, said the effectiveness of NATO's policy is "highly disputable."
"How can restricted NATO interdiction operations put a dent in a $3.5 billion industry? There is no clear evidence to date that proves that targeting the drugs business will weaken the Taliban insurgency," Pothier said.
Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Ministry says 98 percent of Afghanistan's poppy crop is grown in five southern insurgency-plagued provinces, where the government has little or no control. That is where U.S., Afghan and British forces have been destroying drug warehouses this summer.
About 4,000 U.S. Marines in July launched their biggest anti-Taliban offensive since 2001 on the southern province of Helmand, the center of the country's opium poppy cultivation.
U.N. officials say Taliban fighters reap hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade each year, profits used to fund the insurgency. A New York Times report published Monday cited CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency estimates saying that the Taliban earn $70 million a year from narcotics.
Associated Press reporters Slobodan Lekic and Robert Wielaard in Brussels and Richard Lardner and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.