Should NATO kill Afghan opium traffickers?

Debate rages in NATO as a top U.S. commander calls for deadly attacks on the drug mafia, not just Taliban insurgents.

By Susanne Koelbl

Published February 2, 2009 11:09AM (EST)

A dispute has emerged within NATO High Command in Afghanistan regarding the conditions under which alliance troops can use deadly violence against those identified as insurgents. In a classified document, which Der Spiegel has obtained, NATO's top commander, U.S. Gen. John Craddock, has issued a "guidance" providing NATO troops with the authority "to attack directly drug producers and facilities throughout Afghanistan."

According to the document, deadly force is to be used even in those cases where there is no proof that suspects are actively engaged in the armed resistance against the Afghanistan government or against Western troops. It is "no longer necessary to produce intelligence or other evidence that each particular drug trafficker or narcotics facility in Afghanistan meets the criteria of being a military objective," Craddock writes.

The NATO commander has long been frustrated by the reluctance of some NATO member states -- particularly Germany -- to take aggressive action against those involved in the drug trade. Craddock rationalizes his directive by writing that the alliance "has decided that [drug traffickers and narcotics facilities] are inextricably linked to the Opposing Military Forces, and thus may be attacked." In the document, Craddock writes that the directive is the result of an October 2008 meeting of NATO defense ministers in which it was agreed that NATO soldiers in Afghanistan may attack opium traffickers.

The directive was sent on Jan. 5 to Egon Ramms, the German leader at NATO Command in Brunssum, Netherlands, which is currently in charge of the NATO International Security Assistance Force, as well as David McKiernan, the commander of the ISAF peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. Neither want to follow it. Both consider the order to be illegitimate and believe it violates both ISAF rules of engagement and international law, the "law of armed conflict."

A classified letter issued in response by McKiernan's Kabul office says that Craddock is trying to create a "new category" in the rules of engagement for dealing with opposing forces that would "seriously undermine the commitment ISAF has made to the Afghan people and the international community ... to restrain our use of force and avoid civilian casualties to the greatest degree predictable."

A value equivalent to 50 percent of Afghanistan's gross national product is generated through the production and trade of opium and the heroin that is derived from it. Of those earnings, at least $100 million flows each year to the Taliban and its allies, which is used to purchase weapons and pay fighters. That, at least, is the estimate given by Antonio Maria Costas, head of the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime.

But the chain of people profiting from the drug trade goes a lot further -- reaching day laborers in the fields, drug laboratory workers, all the way up to police stations, provincial governments and high-level government circles that include some with close proximity to President Hamid Karzai. If Craddock's order were to go into effect, it would lead to the addition of thousands of Afghans to the description of so-called legitimate military targets and could also land them on so-called targeting lists.

The Taliban are still responsible for the majority of civilian victims in Afghanistan. According to a United Nations report, more than half of the approximately 2,000 citizens killed last year died as a result of suicide attacks, car bombs and fighting with extremists. Nevertheless, relations between the Americans and the local population are extremely tense due the rising number of U.S.-led air strikes and the dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties.

Afghan villagers complain of the rising number of deaths of those who are mistakenly killed during military operations carried out by the Americans and their allies, such as the one carried out recently in Masamut, a village in the eastern Afghan province of Laghman. The U.S. Army announced that it had "eliminated" 32 Taliban insurgents. However, survivors say that 13 civilians were killed during the search for a Taliban commander. In the eyes of many Afghans, the former liberators have long become ruthless occupiers.

Ramms made it perfectly clear in his answer to Craddock that he was not prepared to deviate from the current rules of engagement, which reportedly deeply angered Craddock. The U.S. general, who is considered a loyal Bush man and reportedly fears that he could be replaced by the new U.S. president, has already made his intention known internally that he would like to relieve from duty any commander who doesn't want to follow his instructions to go after the drug mafia.

Back in December, Central Command in Florida, which is responsible for the deployment of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan, yet again watered down provisions in the rules of engagement for Afghanistan pertaining to the protection of civilians. According to the new rules, U.S. forces can now bomb drug labs if an analysis determines that the operation will not kill "more than 10 civilians."

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

Susanne Koelbl

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Afghanistan Taliban