CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- This forward operating base, "20 miles from nowhere," may be the fastest-growing military installation in the world. In the six months since our Fox News team was previously here, the base and its "population" have almost doubled in size. As one of our hosts put it shortly after we arrived, "it's growing faster than opium poppies." But then again, opium is one of the reasons this place is expanding so rapidly.
If the long war here in the shadows of the Hindu Kush is going to be won, it will have to be won here in southern Afghanistan first. This forbidding terrain along the Helmand River basin is both the "spiritual heartland" of the Taliban movement and the primary source of opium, which fuels their insurgency.
Southern Afghanistan is where the Taliban movement began -- and nearly ended. Spawned with the help of Pakistan's government in the 1980s to help defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the faction initially was financed by oil-rich Islamists in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. By 1996, the Taliban, victors in a bloody half-decade-long civil war, had established a brutal, repressive theocracy in Kabul. Taliban leader Mullah Omar became a patron and protector of Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaida was granted near autonomy to establish bases for indoctrinating and training "holy warriors."
The 9/11 attacks changed everything for the Taliban. In less than three months, a hastily assembled U.S.-supported coalition dubbed the "Northern Alliance" forced the Taliban out of Kabul, and remnants of the regime fled south and east toward mountain redoubts and refuges in Pakistan. Kandahar, the last city in Afghanistan held by the Taliban, fell to coalition troops on the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Driven underground, Taliban leaders found it increasingly difficult to finance their cause. As international pressure and aggressive monetary tracking dried up much of their foreign support, insurgent leaders turned to revenues from opium to sustain their movement.
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.