July 29, 2006

NATO sets sights on Afghan drug barons

By Jeremy Laurence

KABUL (Reuters) - NATO's expansion into southern
Afghanistan will target drug warlords who are the root cause of
growing violence, the force's commander said on Saturday.

NATO will embark on the biggest mission in its history on
Monday when it takes over security from the U.S.-led coalition
in six southern provinces, extending its authority to almost
all of the country.

British Lieutenant-General David Richards said he hoped to
see improvements in the south within three to six months, which
would allow the 26-nation alliance to proceed with the final
phase of its deployment into the east by the end of the year.

Afghanistan is going through the bloodiest phase of
violence since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, with
most attacks occurring in the south.

Richards told a news conference in Kabul that the violence
was inextricably linked to drugs.

"Essentially for the last four years some very brutal
people have been developing their little fiefdoms down there
and exporting a lot of opium to the rest of the world," he

"That very evil trade is being threatened by the NATO
expansion in the south. This is a very noble cause we're
engaged in and we have to liberate the people from that scourge
of those warlords."


NATO's expansion signals the end of the coalition's big
offensive in the south which started last month and resulted in
the deaths of hundreds of militants, civilians, soldiers and
government officials.

The Taliban and drug gangs have operated unmolested in the
south for years and are putting up fierce resistance.

Afghanistan is the world's top producer of opium and its
refined form, heroin. Poppy cultivation is back on the increase
in the south, and money made from selling the flowers' opium
has helped pay for the insurgency, according to security

"We do not want to target the farmers. Those people are in
debt because of the drug barons," Richards said.

Richards said the key elements of NATO's new role in the
south, with the backing of up to 9,000 troops from 37
countries, would be to provide security to foster development,
reconstruction and good governance.

This will enable an "alternative economy" to that offered
by the drug barons to develop, he said. "(But) they are going
to fight very hard to keep what they've got," said Richards.

"I am not trying to achieve instant victory because I can't
do that. Within three to six months I think we'll have a very
clear idea (of how we are progressing)."

On Saturday, the U.S. coalition forces said they had
arrested four suspected al Qaeda militants in eastern Khost
province. The identities of the suspects were not given
although a spokesman for the coalition forces said they were
involved in attacks in country's east.

More than 1,700 people have been killed since the start of
the year in attacks, mainly in the south, by Taliban guerrillas
and U.S.-led coalition operations.