May 20, 2006

NATO general says drugs Afghanistan’s biggest threat

BERLIN (Reuters) - Afghanistan is on the brink of becoming
a narco-state with drug cartels now posing a greater threat to
the country's future than Taliban insurgents, NATO's top
military commander in Europe said on Saturday.

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the
raw material for heroin. The narcotics trade accounts for about
a third of its economy.

In an interview with the International Herald Tribune,
General James Jones said: "Afghanistan is teetering on becoming
a narco-state.

"It is not the resurgence of the Taliban but the linkage of
the economy to drug production, crime, corruption and black
market activities which poses the greatest danger for
Afghanistan," he added.

Jones was appointed commander of NATO and the U.S. forces
in Europe in 2003.

Afghanistan's opium output last year was about 4,500 tons
and about 90 percent of the world's heroin comes from
Afghanistan. Experts have said the huge trade is feeding an
escalating insurgency against foreign troops and Afghanistan's
Western-backed government.

NATO is planning expanded operations in Afghanistan in the
coming months that will take foreign troop numbers there to the
highest level since the Taliban's overthrow in 2001.

Jones acknowledged a surge in Taliban attacks in recent
weeks but said the country was "not backsliding into chaos."

He said insurgents were testing NATO in areas where drug
cartels, organized crime groups, tribes, and Taliban and al
Qaeda remnants felt threatened by NATO's expansion plans.

"They want to see if NATO is up to the test. The Taliban
and al Qaeda are not stupid people. They want to see what they
are up against. We are going into places where the scope for
crime and narcotics will be dislodged," said the former U.S.
Marine commander.

Jones said NATO had begun cooperating with Iran to try to
prevent armed drug convoys from crossing into that country en
route to Russia and Europe.

"Iran now sees what we are doing on the Afghan side of the
border is beneficial," he said.