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NATO Clinches Deal for Tougher Afghan Drug Action

NATO defense ministers reached a deal over controversial plans to launch direct attacks on the thriving drugs trade in Afghanistan, which the US says helps fund the Taliban insurgency raging in the country.

A poppy field in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's flourishing opium trade is said to be bankrolling the Taliban

Ministers overcame resistance to the plans from several NATO states -- notably Germany, Italy and Spain -- by accepting that any attacks against opium laboratories would be coordinated with the Afghan authorities.

"There is a formal agreement between the NATO nations to fight drug trafficking," a diplomat confirmed as defense ministers met in the Hungarian capital Budapest for a two-day meeting to discuss issues ranging from the war in Afghanistan to Georgia's NATO membership bid and piracy off the Somali coast.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the alliance's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would "act in concert with the Afghans, against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency."

The ISAF currently has 50,700 soldiers in Afghanistan, up from about 45,000 six months ago. The German parliament agreed Tuesday, Oct. 7 to increase its contribution by 1,000 soldiers, raising its total to 4,500.

US lobbies for Afghan drug action

Sources also said that NATO's anti-narcotics efforts would be temporary, and would be open only to those countries willing to participate.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates had pitched hard at the meeting for NATO to strike at the heart of the Afghan opium trade, which is believed to have contributed substantially to a reinvigorated Taliban insurgency aimed at destabilizing President Hamid Karzai's government.

"It (the opium trade) is not only corrosive to good governance, it also directly funds the people that are killing Afghans, Americans and all our coalition partners," Gates said in Budapest on Thursday.

The deal followed a request from Afghan Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Wardak, who on Thursday asked NATO to help his government target drug laboratories and seize imports of the chemicals needed to turn opium into heroin.

"We have asked NATO to support our efforts to destroy the laboratories and to interdict the chemical precursors which are coming from outside the country," Wardak said.

Germany in favor of Afghan-led operations

NATO military commanders agreed that more needed to be done to fight the opium and heroin trade, a view shared by most alliance members. The Taliban are thought to be pocketing up to $80 million a year from the Afghan narcotics industry, which is the source of some 92 percent of the world's opium and heroin.

Germany, Spain, Greece, Poland, Romania and Italy had expressed scepticism over the plans, saying the fight against the Afghan drugs trade was not part of NATO's mandate and should be addressed by the Afghans themselves.

German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said Thursday 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 on Thursday.

Ministers also worried that bombing laboratories would kill civilians and undermine the alliance's popularity among ordinary Afghans.

The compromise reached Friday is to be reviewed when defense ministers meet again in Poland in February.

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