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NATO Battles Poppy Cultivation, Resource Challenges in Afghanistan

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2008 – The NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan has made significant progress in the country despite the command being “under-resourced,” the alliance’s top officer in the country said today.

In a conference call with defense experts from his headquarters in the Afghan capital of Kabul, U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill also said opium poppy cultivation continues to be a major threat to Afghanistan.

“In some portions of the country right now, mostly in the south, the cultivation of poppy is a far greater threat to the Afghan government -- to the security and stability here -- than the insurgency,” McNeill said.

The Afghan government has to take the lead in eliminating opium poppy cultivation as the basis for the country’s economy, McNeill said. The general estimates that the Taliban and al-Qaida receive 20 to 40 percent of their money from the drug trade. The United Nations estimates it’s closer to 60 percent.

“We are in there fighting insurgents who are as much narcodealers as they are insurgents,” McNeill said. “In some cases, we are fired upon by people doing narcobusiness.”

Poppy cultivation also takes the people away from legitimate enterprises. In Helmand province, the fifth-largest recipient of money from U.S. Agency for International Development in the world, “they seem to focus on the poppy instead of the roads, the medical care, the rebuilding of schools and the work that is going on, albeit slowly, to get them electricity,” McNeill said.

The international community cannot fight the opium wars, the general said. The Afghan government has to be in the lead and decide that poppy literally and figuratively is poisoning their children, he told the military experts.

The NATO command in Afghanistan has grown, but still needs more troops, the general said. “When I first took command [in February 2007], we had 36,000; we’re at about 56,000 today,” McNeill said.

NATO has added a provincial reconstruction team under Czech command.

Afghan forces have doubled in size and are gaining more capabilities. Some units in Regional Command East and Regional Command North soon will be ready to assume battle space, the general said. But the Afghan police effort continues to lag, he acknowledged, mostly because of a shortage of mentors for the units.

Conditions in Pakistan complicate the situation in Afghanistan, McNeill told the military experts. “We keep our eyes on Pakistan. It seems to me to be very dysfunctional right now,” he said.

Though the notion of peace talks under way between Pakistani government officials and tribal leaders in the country’s northwestern region may sound promising, experience has shown the opposite, McNeill said.

“We are troubled by the negotiations and the possibility of yet another peace deal in the northwest,” he said. “We’ve got good data that shows whenever there is dialogue or a peace deal consummated [between the Pakistani government and the tribal leaders], our aggregate number of untoward events typically goes up. The good news is we have more force in RC-East than we did last year, so I think we can handle what comes.”

U.S. Marines operating with RC-South have helped, but the area is still under-resourced, McNeill said. About 1,200 Marines serve as part of Operation Enduring Freedom to mentor the police and to serve as a quick-reaction force. A total of 2,200 Marines are serving under the NATO flag and are helping British forces clear out areas of Helmand province that previously had no coalition forces presence.

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Gen. Dan K. McNeill USA

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NATO International Security Assistance Force

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