Afghanistan complains about Russians in drug raid

AP News
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Posted: Oct 30, 2010 11:57 AM
Afghanistan complains about Russians in drug raid

Afghanistan's president said Saturday he had not been informed in advance of Russian participation in a NATO-led drug raid that netted $56 million worth of heroin and morphine, and his administration demanded a formal apology from the alliance.

Hamid Karzai's complaint was the latest evidence of his strained relationship with the U.S.-led coalition. It also underscored lingering sensitivities over Russian involvement in Afghanistan, which was invaded by the former Soviet Union in 1979.

Russian counternarcotics agents teamed up with U.S. and Afghan forces Thursday to seize four drug labs in an unprecedented joint raid in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, officials said. The action came less than a week after Russia's anti-narcotics chief accused the U.S. of failing to dismantle such labs and slow down the flow of heroin into Russia.

The level of cooperation between U.S. and Russian forces was significant and suggested an improvement in relations between the former Cold War foes, two decades after U.S.-financed Afghan militias chased the Soviet military out of the country.

But it irked Karzai. The Afghan president stressed Afghanistan and Russia also have friendly relations but said no country should carry out military operations on Afghan soil without permission.

Moscow's anti-drugs chief Viktor Ivanov confirmed Friday that Russia had provided coordinates for the raid and had two agents involved, but a Kremlin official downplayed Russia's participation following Karzai's criticism.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said "we were in favor of the operation being conducted, but technically, we did not participate in it." He would not comment on why Ivanov and the U.S. claimed it was a joint operation. Some observers suggested officials may have overstated Russia's involvement to boost ties with Washington.

Karzai said the raid breached Afghanistan's sovereignty and international law and ordered the interior and defense ministries to investigate the issue.

"While Afghanistan remains committed to its joint efforts with (the) international community against narcotics, it also makes it clear that no organization or institution shall have the right to carry out such a military operation without prior authorization and consent of the government of Afghanistan," his office said in a statement.

While Afghan forces were involved in the raid, Karzai's national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta insisted that NATO had not asked for permission to bring the Russians along. He said NATO had verbally apologized but Afghanistan wanted a formal declaration.

"We want a public apology," said Spanta, a former foreign minister. "The friendship does not allow a friend to do whatever he pleases in the house of the host."

American agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and NATO also participated in the raid. U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that three branches of Afghan law enforcement were also present.

The joint operation followed an interview Ivanov had given to The Associated Press a week earlier complaining that American officials were not acting on intelligence he had provided them on the locations on Afghan drug labs.

Russian involvement in Afghanistan is particularly delicate because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and occupied the country until it was forced to withdraw nine years later by anti-communist mujahedeen forces.

These U.S.-backed rebels took power in 1992 when the pro-Moscow government collapsed. The Taliban eventually seized Kabul after a violent civil war, ruling with a strict interpretation of Islamic law until they were ousted by the U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.

Russia and the United States occasionally cooperate on terrorism and drug issues, but Moscow has offered only lukewarm support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and has limited itself to providing its territory for U.S. military transit, turning down requests to provide helicopters and training for pilots or to train counter-narcotics police.

Nevertheless, the export of Afghan drugs is an issue of paramount concern to Russia, which now has 2 million opium and heroin addicts. Moscow had been urging the U.S. military to take action against Afghan drug labs, which process unrefined opium into heroin or morphine.

Relations between Karzai and the international community became strained after his re-election last year was criticized for widespread fraud. Most recently, he attempted to ban private security contractors from the country, arguing they contributed to instability. Diplomats had wanted exemptions for some development projects, but Karzai insisted he would simply extend the deadline.

In fighting Saturday, insurgents armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars tried to storm a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, setting off a battle that killed 30 attackers and slightly wounded five coalition soldiers, NATO said.

The border area has long been a refuge for Islamist extremists from around the world and has been the target of numerous drone strikes. In recent months Afghan and NATO forces have been pushing into the south of the country, the traditional heartland of the insurgency.

Three NATO soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan Saturday _ two following insurgent attacks and one in an explosion.

Also in the south, a coalition force in Helmand province killed more than 10 insurgents and discovered bomb-making materials during a patrol early Saturday, NATO said.

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Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Kathy Gannon in Kabul and David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.