BUDAPEST (AFP) — NATO announced Friday its troops would from now on target Afghanistan's opium trade directly in an effort to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars of drug money financing the Taliban insurgency.
NATO has generally avoided tackling drugs, with many members fearful of compromising support from ordinary Afghans, including many poor farmers dependant on such crops for their livelihoods.
But the Taliban, ousted from power seven years ago by a US-led coalition, has been reaping close to 100 million dollars a year from the opium trade and using the funds to buy weapons to fight NATO troops.
NATO defence ministers agreed that "ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, subject to the authorisation of respective nations," said spokesman James Appathurai.
The agreement came with a number of conditions, most notably that it happen in line with UN Security Council resolutions and under NATO's existing operational plan, he said.
Appathurai declined to go into detail about the deal, but said ministers would review the new steps -- essentially a plan to hunt down drug lords and laboratories -- when they meet in Poland in February.
"The idea of a review is indeed envisioned," he said, as the defence ministers continued their talks in the Hungarian capital Budapest.
NATO leads a 51,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan but the Taliban, backed by Al-Qaeda fighters, is undermining its efforts to spread the Kabul government's influence across the country.
Despite this, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Romania and Spain had led opposition against officially diving into the drug war, believing that the Afghans themselves should drive such efforts.
Afghanistan is a source of some 92 percent of the world's opium and heroin.
The ministers agreed they would seek to "avoid civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible" in such operations, a NATO official said.
The agreement would allow governments to tackle the "high end" opium trade if they wanted to, but not tie the hands of those nations unwilling to take part, the official said.
"This means that the United States and Britain have free rein" to take action, a NATO diplomat said.
"Germany will continue to act in coordination with Afghan forces," he said.
Senior NATO officials say that Afghanistan's drug problem has been largely brought under control, except for seven provinces in the lawless south of the country, where many of the insurgents have been operating.
US, British, Canadian and Dutch NATO forces are deployed in the south, while German troops are based in the relatively quiet north of the country.
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