Efforts to secure polling places have met with fierce resistance in the southern, largely Pashtun, part of the country. When the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade launched Operation Eastern Resolve II in the Helmand River Valley this week, they were confronted by well-armed, dug-in Taliban fighters, who employed improvised explosive devices, mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons and snipers to prevent Afghan authorities from setting up election sites.
Unfortunately, things are unlikely to calm down much after next week's balloting. The Afghan Constitution requires the leading vote-getter to receive more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against the second-place challenger. Though incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads the field of 38 presidential candidates, his Pashtun-Tajik coalition may not garner enough votes to avoid another contest in October.
A drawn-out election process isn't the only thing that will keep "optempo" high. "Our strategy for the remainder of 'the fighting season' is based on the need to wrest the opium production region from Taliban control and do so with a minimum of 'friendly' casualties," a U.S. officer told me this week.
It's a mission that makes sense. The Taliban insurgency depends on financing provided by opium, Afghanistan's No. 1 export commodity. Most of the "ratlines" for precursor chemicals and delivery of processed heroin and morphine flow across the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because Islamabad finally has decided to crack down on the Taliban in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas and its northwestern provinces, there is a greater chance for success now than at any time since 2001.
That doesn't mean accomplishing this mission is going to be easy. One U.S. commander told me, "Our greatest operational challenge is logistics" to support the offensives. That's something that hasn't changed in the 11 months since I was there. As I reported then, "Afghanistan, with only one paved highway, too few airbases and insufficient air assets, is the most difficult country to move men and materiel that I have ever seen." Apparently, it still is.
Finally, there is the difficult task of winning the "hearts and minds" of the tribal people who live in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. Achieving that goal requires more than allied courage, tenacity and perseverance; it necessitates recruiting, training and equipping another 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers, who will become responsible for the fate of their own country.
When that happens, we will know we have won. If it doesn't, the headline will read, "Taliban Win."
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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