NATO agrees to fight pirates, deadlocked over Afghan drugs

NATO defence ministers agreed Thursday to deploy anti-piracy warships to Somalia, but they remained deadlocked over plans to step up the fight against illegal drugs in Afghanistan, dpa reported.

At a meeting in Budapest, officials said up to seven NATO frigates would be reaching the Somali coast within two weeks, tasked with escorting United Nations' ships delivering food aid to Africa.

The frigates are part of the Standing NATO Response Force Maritime Group already operating in the region.

"This is good news for the people of Somalia and bad news for the pirates," said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

The deployment meets a specific request from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and will complement a similar initiative being launched by the European Union, the NATO chief said.

However, the brunt of the talks in Budapest focussed on NATO's on- going operations in Afghanistan amid growing concerns that the alliance was losing the war against the local insurgency.

"This has been, until now, a challenging year for Afghan and international forces. Extremist attacks are up, and so is cross-border support for the insurgents in Afghanistan," de Hoop Scheffer said.

"But there is no reason whatsoever for doom and gloom," he said.

His words were a response to recent comments made by the departing commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who said NATO would never defeat the Taliban.

The NATO chief cited the increase in NATO's presence through its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), up by 5,000 to nearly 51,000 since April, as well as improved living conditions for ordinary Afghans, as providing sufficient reasons for "cautious optimism."

On top of being asked to send more troops, helicopters and trainers to Afghanistan, defence ministers also discussed a request from ISAF commanders and from the local government for NATO to use its soldiers and weapons to crack down on the country's flourishing heroin industry.

"We have asked NATO to support our efforts to destroy the laboratories and to interdict the chemical precursors which are coming from outside the country," Afghan Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Wardak told reporters in Budapest.

However, ministers failed to reach an agreement during their first day of talks, with Germany, Italy and Spain among the countries arguing that such a task should best be left to the Afghan police.

"This is a complex question, and I cannot say that all noses were pointing in the same direction," de Hoop Scheffer said. "But I am confident that we can find a way."

According to the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium cultivation in Afghanistan has fallen to 157,000 hectares, down 19 per cent from last year's record harvest of 193,000 hectares.

But the drop has been caused chiefly by drought, rather than by Afghan efforts to destroy crops. Moreover, higher yields means opium production has come down just 6 per cent from 2007.

UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa noted in an August report that while Afghanistan's poppy-free provinces had increased - from 13 to 18 - there was now "a perfect overlap between zones of high risk and regions of high opium cultivation.

"Since drugs are funding insurgency, and insurgency enables drug cultivation, insurgency and narcotics must be fought together," Costa said at the time.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in Budapest estimated the amount of drugs money pocketed by the Taliban at between 60 and 80 million dollars a year.

"It is not only corrosive to good governance, it also directly funds the people that are killing Afghans, Americans and all our coalition partners," Gates said in Budapest. Targeting drug lords and laboratories is "a legitimate security endeavour," he added.

But German Defence Minister Franz-Josef Jung said NATO's involvement in the fight against drug production should maintain "an Afghan face."

Germany and others fear that NATO bombing raids on suspect laboratories may end up killing civilians and undermine their painstaking efforts to increase trust among the Afghan population.

The meeting in Budapest was taking place against the backdrop of a whirlpooling financial crisis that is threatening to curb military spending in member states.

"I do think that defence budgets should increase in NATO, and we see a trend that is not to my liking," the alliance's chief told ministers.

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