KABUL, Afghanistan– Opium poppy is a crippling problem for the Afghan government, and a NATO decision in October is having an effect on the battlefield, officials of the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force said today. Opium poppy is the main cash crop for most of Afghanistan’s impoverished farmers. The infrastructure is so bad in the country that the easily transported product is the only source of income for a significant chunk of the population. Without a replacement crop, millions of families in Afghanistan would starve.

The farmers sell to whomever they can, because they need the money. The Taliban and other terrorists are among their best customers.

Many drug lords set up labs, process the opium to heroin and export it to Western Europe. Many of the drug lords have ties to the Taliban, and the enemy protects the labs with rings of roadside bombs and mines. The Taliban and other groups also take a cut of the profits to fund their operations.

Until October’s NATO defense ministers conference in Budapest, Hungary, the alliance’s hands were tied in providing much aid to Afghanistan’s fight against the traffickers. Now, NATO forces can strike drug targets if they are asked to do so by the Afghan government or if they can prove the labs and people are connected to the drug/Taliban nexus.

“It is an Afghan initiative,” said Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, ISAF operations chief, in an interview at the force’s headquarters here today. “Our soldiers do not and will not physically eradicate the poppy,” he said. “We will not be out there with a sickle cutting down poppy plants.”

Afghan forces take care of poppy eradication as directed by Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry. But NATO now can support the Afghan effort with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. NATO troopers can establish a cordon around a suspected drug factory.

And NATO also can target drug lords who help the Taliban.

“If this drug lab produces narcotics that benefit the insurgency, and I can prove it through intelligence, then it is a military target by definition, and I can blow it to smithereens,” Tucker said. “If this person is linked to the nexus, then I can put that person on the ‘kill or capture’ list.”

Tucker said the Afghan government has asked for NATO help a few times since the Budapest conference, and he expects it to continue.

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