Drugs are a greater security threat in Afghanistan than a Taliban resurgence, NATO’s top operational commander told the Associated Press Thursday, despite a rise in attacks blamed on remnants of the hard-line Islamic regime and their al-Qaida allies. Opium production has boomed since the fall of the Taliban, stoking fears that Afghanistan – source of 80 percent of the world’s heroin – is becoming a narco-state.
“For my money, the number one problem in Afghanistan is drugs,” U.S. Gen. James L. Jones told reporters during a stopover in Qatar on his way to the Afghan capital, Kabul, for talks with President Hamid Karzai.
The attacks have raised concerns among NATO allies as they prepare to send up to 6,000 more troops to expand the peacekeeping mission into the more volatile southern region around Kandahar, freeing U.S.-led forces to focus on counterinsurgencies. NATO foreign ministers last week approved the southern expansion plan, which includes a more robust mandate for the troops and closer cooperation with the separate U.S.-led combat force of about 20,000. The NATO force is currently limited to Kabul and the relatively calm north and west. The new mandate also gives NATO a stronger role in supporting Afghan efforts against the burgeoning opium business. But it stresses that NATO’s role will be a supportive one and won’t involve soldiers burning poppy fields or launching military raids against drug producers.