BUDAPEST, Hungary – NATO should go after the drug trade in Afghanistan to take away funding for the Taliban and al-Qaida, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

NATO defense ministers are discussing counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan aimed at drug lords and drug laboratories, and a range of opinions has emerged, he said.

Some countries have concerns that getting involved in a counter-narcotics mission in any way violates the NATO International Security Assistance Force mandate in the country, Gates said.

“My approach was … we’re not talking about a counter-narcotics strategy – that really is the Afghans’ responsibility,” Gates said during a media roundtable. “What we’re talking about is greater freedom to track down the networks of those who are funding the Taliban, which happens to be drug money.”

Beyond the legalistic opposition, defense ministers expressed other concerns, Gates said. “First of all, do you further antagonize some of the Afghan people by doing anything in this respect?” he said. “There is a concern that it might put more soldiers in harm’s way.”

Also, the secretary said, some ministers expressed the concern that if ISAF takes on the mission, it will relieve the Afghan government of responsibility for the drug problem.

Earlier in the day, Gates said drug money funnels between $60 million and $80 million per year into the Taliban. Opium poppy is the major cash crop in seven southern provinces of the country, which grows 98 percent of the crop. Any operations would not be aimed at individual farmers, the secretary said, but the men who funnel money to anti-government and terror groups.

“More often where narcotics production has been driven down in Afghanistan, it has been as a result of effective governance and good governors than it has [been as a result of] eradication,” he said.

The ministers are having a good discussion, and “people are listening to one another,” the secretary said. He would not guess what recommendation the defense ministers would have at the end of the conference tomorrow.

Corruption is a problem in the Afghan government, and corruption is fueled by narcotics, the secretary said.

The secretary said the narcotics issue is an outgrowth of a proposal from U.S. Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe. The ministers had not addressed the problem before, Gates said, adding that he was encouraged by the discussion.

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