BUDAPEST (Reuters) - NATO allies reached a deal on Friday to allow direct attacks on the Afghan drugs trade that the United States says are vital to bringing security to the country in the face of a worsening Taliban insurgency.
NATO operations commander Gen. John Craddock has asked for the alliance force in Afghanistan to be allowed to attack laboratories, trafficking networks and drug lords to stem a trade that helps fund the Taliban insurgency.
A NATO spokesman said NATO defense ministers reached an agreement that tougher action by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) could be taken based on requests by the Afghan government and U.N. Security Council resolutions under the alliance's current operations plan.
"ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency subject to the authorization of respective nations," James Appathurai said after discussions among the ministers in Budapest.
Germany and some other NATO states including Spain, have been wary of extending the role of the NATO mission. Berlin is concerned it could worsen the violence and increase the risk to its forces, which although stationed in the quieter north patrol trafficking routes out of Afghanistan.
At the Budapest meeting, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak fully backed Craddock's call for more robust NATO action.
Proponents say the plan is essential if NATO is to reduce violence. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the drugs trade brought the Taliban $60-$80 million a year.
A Pentagon spokesman said Gates was "extremely pleased" a deal had been reached. A senior U.S. defense official called it a "delicate compromise."
The official stressed the deal said allies "can" take on the counter-narcotics tasks but are not required to. That meant the "hard work" would start now, the official said, noting Washington would now start pressing allies to sign up.
Craddock and Gates argued that tackling the drugs business was a fundamental part of the strategy to defeat the Taliban and allow the Afghan government to establish control throughout the country.
"NATO is charged with a safe and secure environment," Craddock told Reuters Thursday. "You cannot have a safe and secure environment with a scourge of narcotics rampant."
The top U.S. military officer, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, warned Thursday that violence in Afghanistan would escalate in 2009 unless the United States and other countries moved quickly to counter the intensifying insurgency with troops and assistance.
Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States, NATO and other countries had failed to forge the kind of strategic unity necessary to stem the rise in violence.
Craddock blamed NATO allies' failure to deliver needed resources for commanders' inability to control violence, which has soared for more than two years, allowing the Taliban to dominate swaths of territory.
Gates said he would press for a more comprehensive NATO approach incorporating a quicker build-up of the Afghan army and more aid and development as well as the counter-narcotics drive.
The United States has urged allies to send extra troops. Commanders of the 50,700-strong NATO force are seeking up to 12,000 more but some European member states have been reluctant to commit additional numbers.
The United States plans to increase its troop numbers from 33,000 now, which include 13,000 under NATO, but U.S. officials worry allies will see this as an excuse not to meet pledges.
Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold; editing by Philippa Fletcher