WASHINGTON: NATO forces in Afghanistan will step up attacks on drug lords and narcotics traffickers who are supporting an insurgency that over the past year has rebounded and is responsible for rising violence, the top American commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday.
The comments by the commander, General David McKiernan, made clear that international troops in Afghanistan were not going to eradicate crops that make Afghanistan the world's top supplier of opium poppies, which are processed into heroin.
But by drawing a clear link between the narcotics trade and its role in the insurgency, McKiernan was outlining what could be an important and expanding role for American and NATO troops as they seek to eliminate a source of money and weapons for the insurgency.
"I think there's a need for increased involvement in ISAF in assisting the Afghan government in counter-narcotics efforts," said McKiernan, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. "Where we can make a clear intelligence linkage between a narcotics dealer or a facility and the insurgency, I consider that a force protection issue and we can deal with that in a military way."
NATO commanders always have the right to take steps to protect their troops. It is under this authority that McKiernan is authorizing attacks on drug lords that are helping the insurgency.
Specifically, McKiernan said that his forces would be authorized to attack narcotics bosses, their foot soldiers and infrastructure if they are linked to the movement of weapons, improvised explosives or foreign fighters into Afghanistan.
Some non-governmental organizations have urged international security forces to take an active role in eradicating the poppy crops. But American and NATO officials have vigorously rejected those proposals, saying such decisions should be left to the Afghan government, which would also have to develop alternate livelihoods for the farmers.
Even so, McKiernan noted that NATO's senior commander, General John Craddock, has approached the alliance to see whether the mandate for Afghanistan should be reopened to determine "if there are some increased authorities that NATO should exercise" to include eradication.
"We should expand our support to that," McKiernan said at one of two separate news conferences he held here on Wednesday.
McKiernan said today's fight in Afghanistan is against more than just Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, but also "a very broad range of militant groups that are combined with the criminality, with the narco-trafficking system, with corruption, that form a threat and a challenge to the future of that great country."
The general said that the Taliban will take in at least $100 million in heroin proceeds this year alone.
In recent weeks, McKiernan has officially request three additional brigade combat teams for the mission, an increase of more than 15,000 over the 8,500 already approved by President George W. Bush. He said that given the complex terrain, there also is a significant need for more helicopters.
As military commanders and political leaders review the strategy for Afghanistan, McKiernan expressed doubts that a successful effort that enlisted tribal forces to the coalition side in Iraq could be repeated in Afghanistan.
Especially in Anbar Province, a western region of Iraq that was a base of the Sunni-led insurgency, American military officers were able to convince tribal leaders to support the coalition fight against Al Qaeda and other insurgents in a program variously called the Iraq Awakening and Sons of Iraq.
"The difference in Afghanistan is that needs to be an Afghan-led effort to engage the tribes," McKiernan said.
In Afghanistan, there "is a degree of complexity in the tribal system which is much greater than what I found in Iraq years ago," McKiernan added. "And I also find that of the over 400 major tribal networks inside of Afghanistan, they have been largely, as I said earlier, traumatized by over 30 years of war, so a lot of that traditional tribal structure has broken down."
McKiernan, who has been critical of Pakistan's efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters using safe havens there to carry out attacks against allied forces in Afghanistan, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that an ongoing assault by Pakistani forces against militants in the tribal area of Bajaur could put a dent into extremist operations in the border region.
"I am encouraged by the military operations that the Pakistani army and Frontier Corps have undertaken," said McKiernan, who cautioned, however, "It is probably too early to see if there's been an effect on the sustainment of foreign fighters, of supplies, of facilitation on the Afghan side of the border.
McKiernan also praised the appointment this week of a new head of Pakistan's top spy organization, saying the new director general, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, is likely to carry out reforms of an agency that the general said has had "institutional and historical" ties to the Taliban and other militant networks.
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