August 10, 2009 7:19 pm

US ‘shifts stance’ on Afghan war

The Obama administration has raised the stakes in Afghanistan by expanding the war to include a full-scale attack on illegal narcotics and has authorised the killing or capture of 50 drug lords, according to a report to be released on Tuesday.

The report, prepared for the US Senate foreign relations committee, says President Barack Obama has shifted dramatically from his earlier insistence that he was pursuing narrower goals than the Bush administration in Afghanistan. “The administration has raised the stakes by transforming the Afghan war from a limited intervention into a more ambitious and potentially risky counter-insurgency,” it says.

While Mr Obama said in February the US would focus on preventing the Taliban and al-Qaeda from re-establishing themselves and discounted any ambition to set up a “Jeffersonian democracy” in Afghanistan, his administration’s subsequent policy review called for a “comprehensive” approach to the insurgency.

The administration is not due to spell out its precise measures for success until September. But officials now give greater emphasis to the need to improve governance and the Afghan economy if the insurgency is to be defeated, while General Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander in the country, is expected to call for more resources.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published on Monday he warned that the Taliban currently had the momentum, that US casualties would remain high and that US troops would be redeployed to protect Afghan civilians.

The Senate report, first reported in the New York Times, adds that the US, Britain, Canada and other countries in Afghanistan increasingly see counter-insurgency and curbing narcotics as inextricably linked and maintain that the Taliban cannot be defeated without cutting off financing by the Afghan opium industry, which marks up $3bn (€2.1bn, £1.8bn) a year in profits.

However, it notes that some recent estimates put the Taliban’s drug revenue at $70m-$125m a year, adding that the United Nations was revising its figures down from an estimate of $400m last year.

Two unnamed US generals in Afghanistan told the report authors the rules of engagement and the laws of war had been “interpreted to allow them to put drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency on a kill list” that permits killing on the battlefield but not targeted assassination.

“We have a list of 367 ‘kill or capture’ targets, including 50 nexus targets who link drugs and insurgency,” the report quotes one of the officers as saying.

The focus on narcotics comes despite the Obama administration’s vigorous rejection of poppy eradication by methods such as aerial spraying, which officials say punishes ordinary peasants and risks stoking the insurgency.

The report adds that a new international taskforce targeting drug traffickers, insurgents and corrupt officials will soon begin operating out of Kandahar airfield and that 100 Afghan nationals are already working with the US Drug Enforcement Agency to monitor telephone calls involving suspected drug and insurgent activity. But it says Afghan officials hindered previous attempts against drug lords and did not provide sufficient resources.
● Hakimullah Mehsud, a close aide to Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader believed by Pakistani officials to have been killed last week, said yesterday both he and the Taliban commander were alive, Reuters reports.

But Baitullah Mehsud, the aide said, was ill and would take no action that would make it easier to hunt him down. Hakimullah Mehsud was reported to have been killed by a rival in the organisation at the weekend.

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