Comments by Gen. Bantz John Craddock, head of U.S European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe for NATO — who wants NATO soldiers to shoot Afghan drug traffickers first, ask questions later — have led to a spirited debate within the NATO community about the legal and moral implications of taking out suspected drug dealers in the lucrative Afghan opium trade without evidence and whether drug interdiction is outside the scope of the military mission in Afghanistan.

Craddock reportedly wrote in a classified memo leaked to the German magazine Der Spiegel last week that “it was no longer necessary to produce intelligence or other evidence that each particular drug trafficker or narcotics facility in Afghanistan meets the criteria of being a military objective.”

Senior NATO officers have been weighing in, saying they do not agree with Craddock, that his approach is not only illegal, but would undermine the mission and endanger civilians there. But really, Craddock is just taking recent statements made by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates one precarious step further.

This is what Gates said this month, according to Stars and Stripes: “If we have evidence that the drug labs and drug lords are supporting the Taliban, then they’re fair game,” he told a gaggle of reporters on January 22. He got the ball rolling about changing the rules of engagement on the ground back in October:

“My approach was that we are not talking about a counternarcotics strategy; that route really is the Afghans’ responsibility,” Gates told a small group of U.S. and European journalists Thursday evening during a two-day summit here of NATO defense ministers. “What we are talking about is greater freedom to track down the networks of those who are funding the Taliban, which happens to be drug money.”

Though opposed by leaders in Spain and Germany, Poland and others, NATO’s defense ministers signed an agreement — led by the U.S and Britain — a day after Gates’ statements in Brussels, allowing NATO forces to begin targeting the Afghanistan drug trade (this is not counternarcotics?) which, according to estimates, gives the Taliban about $80 million a year in operating cash. Poppy farming is also the country’s largest cash crop– and 50 percent of its gross domestic product, according to reported estimates.

The Craddock memo, on the heels of this new NATO agreement, ups the ante and is fraught with danger signs and moral ambiguities. No one wants to see the Taliban continue to extort these poor farmers, fueling their own violent deeds and oppressive rule with the only lifeblood this crippled, war weary society has left. There have been widely accepted alternative approaches (short of ending the global drug war and therefore killing the high price that opium-fueled heroin fetches on the market altogether) like encouraging farmers to scrap poppy and grow something else through subsidies, construction projects, whatever incentives possible. But not through force.

Admittedly, for many reasons, the non-violent approach hasn’t been working. But will executing people? Under Craddock or even through Gates’ new directive, who exactly would be targeted? Tribal leaders and drug kingpins? Poor schleps running pack mules, teenage heads of households bringing home their families’ only income? Resistant farmers with no choice but to harvest the tainted crop because it’s the only way their families will eat through the winter? If all is fair, will NATO forces target, too, the corrupt local and central politicians and bureaucrats allowing the Taliban to thrive off poppy while picking our pockets, and living lavish lifestyles while the lowliest people of Kabul burn trash in the streets to get a little warmth?

God knows our troops must be frustrated beyond measure, fighting an enemy whose black market resources are hiding in plain sight. But the story of Afghan poppies fueling the west’s hunger for heroin, its nexus with terrorism, its role in keeping the devastated Afghan economy on life support is just too complicated for  knee-jerk “Just Say No”-or-we’ll-shoot remedies [Radio Free Europe published a good read on this two weeks ago].

Add it all to the risk of turning mostly friendly and open Afghan civilians against us by burning their fields, running them off the land and shooting their villagers, and you’re taking our own failed War on Drugs to a whole new level. Or shall we say we’ve enlisted NATO to join us in Central Asia’s new Colombia ? One bittersweet consolation, we may not have the cash to carry on this adventure for as long.