(AP Photo/Fraidoon Pooyaa, File)
BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) -- NATO defense ministers Friday authorized their troops in Afghanistan to attack drug barons blamed for pumping up to $100 million a year into the coffers of resurgent Taliban fighters.
"With regard to counter-narcotics ... ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai, referring to the NATO force.
The United States had been pushing for NATO's 50,000 troops to take on a counter-narcotics role to hit back at the Taliban, whose increasing attacks have cast doubt on the prospects of a Western military victory in Afghanistan.
However, Germany, Spain and others were wary and their doubts led to NATO imposing conditions on the anti-drug mandate for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Troops will only be able to act against drug facilities if authorized by their own governments; only drug producers deemed to be supporting the insurgency will be targeted; and the operation must be designed to be temporary - lasting only until the Afghan security forces are deemed able to take on the task.
NATO defense ministers will review the success of the mission when they next meet February in Poland. Despite the limitations, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates welcomed the NATO move.
"Secretary Gates is extremely pleased that, after two days of thoughtful discussion, NATO has decided to allow ISAF forces to take on the drug traffickers who are fueling the insurgency, destabilizing Afghanistan and killing our troops," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
Germany and Spain agreed to the anti-drug mission after an appeal for help from Afghanistan's defense minister.
"We've asked NATO to please support us, support our effort in destroying the labs and also the interdiction of the drugs and the chemical precursors that are coming from outside the country for making heroin," Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters after meeting his NATO counterparts Thursday.
Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world's heroin, a trade worth billions of dollars.
Until now, responsibility for dealing with the problem has lain with the Afghan police, but NATO commanders believe the fledgling force cannot cope with the problem. They say the time has come for NATO to move against the drug barons.
Some allies were concerned that a counter-narcotics campaign could spark a backlash against their troops, even if, as NATO commanders insist, the campaign will not target farmers who depend on growing opium poppies for a living.
They also feared that widening the mission could over-stretch the hard-pressed troops and undermine NATO's long-term goal of handing more responsibility to Afghan forces.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Thursday stressed the need for action.
"Our guys are killed by the weapons bought by the Taliban, financed by drugs money," de Hoop Scheffer said.
Associated Press writers Barbara Schaeder, Pablo Gorondi and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this story
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