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Drug traffickers who help fund the Afghan insurgency are on a list of militant leaders targeted by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, a top American military official said Monday.
U.S. and NATO troops are attacking drug warehouses and narco dealers in Afghanistan for the first time this year, a new strategy to counter the country's booming opium poppy and heroin trade. NATO defense ministers approved the targeted drug raids late last year, saying the link between Taliban insurgents and the drug trade was clear.
When the nexus between a drug trafficker and the insurgency is clear enough, the drug trafficker is put on a list of insurgent leaders wanted by U.S. forces, said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan.
"The list of targets are those that are contributing to the insurgency, so the key leadership, and part of that obviously is the link between the narco industry and the militants," Smith said.
Smith declined to say how many drug traffickers or militants are on the list. The New York Times reported in its Monday edition that the military has a list of 367 "kill or capture" targets in Afghanistan, including 50 targets who straddle the drug trade and insurgency. The Times cited a report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the newspaper said would be released this week.
The existence of drug traffickers on a wanted list of militants is a fairly recent development, following that NATO change in policy, though the individuals likely were known to the military before then, Smith said.
The majority of the wanted drug traffickers are in southern Afghanistan, where the drug trade is strongest, though "there are links elsewhere dealing with trafficking," Smith said.
U.S. Marines and Afghan forces have found and destroyed hundreds of tons of poppy seeds, opium and heroin in southern Afghanistan this summer in raids that troops were not allowed to carry out a year ago.
In another major U.S. policy shift, the U.S. announced in June it would no longer support the destruction of individual farmers' poppy plants, and instead would increase attacks on drug warehouses.
For years, the U.S. strategy has centered on training Afghan forces to eradicate farmers' poppy fields by hand. But such efforts never destroyed a significant portion of the crops. Farmers complained that the program targeted small, helpless poppy growers and passed over more powerful land owners, and the forces came under constant attack by militants.
Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Ministry says 98 percent of Afghanistan's poppy crop is grown in five southern insurgency-plagued provinces, where the government has little or no control. That is where U.S., Afghan and British forces have been destroying drug warehouses this summer.
About 4,000 U.S. Marines in July launched their biggest anti-Taliban offensive since 2001 on the southern province of Helmand, the center of the country's opium poppy cultivation.
U.N. officials say Taliban fighters reap hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade each year, profits used to fund the insurgency. The New York Times report cited CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency estimates saying that the Taliban earn $70 million a year from narcotics.
This program aired on August 10, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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