Shutting down Taliban-controlled opium poppy cultivation, processing laboratories, caches, "delivery services" and money laundering operations has become a crucial mission for the U.S.-led coalition. According to the United Nations, more than 90 percent of the world's illicit opium, heroin and morphine base originates here in southern Afghanistan -- primarily in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Refined "product," estimated to be worth more than $3 billion, is then moved via "ratlines" through neighboring countries to consumers in Europe, Russia, Iran and the United States.
According to intelligence officers here, the Taliban have become a "narco-insurgency" that nets hundreds of millions of dollars from the global opium trade. Taliban networks use the money to finance the purchase of weapons and munitions and to buy protection from corrupt officials here in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan.
Officers in the Marine expeditionary brigade headquartered here at Camp Leatherneck describe the dual tasks of conducting counterinsurgency operations to protect the civilian population and interrupting this financial flow to the Taliban as "formidable" yet "essential" to victory. To that end, these Marines and units of the newly reorganized Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan are working closely with special agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration to target drug labs, "storage depots" and key individuals involved in the opium trade.
Last month, one of the prime objectives of Operation Moshtarak in the opium-rich Marjah district of Helmand province was taking down local narco-networks. Though Taliban fighters pledged to repel the "foreign invaders," they proved unable to prevent NATO and Afghan government troops from reasserting control over the region.
Now Taliban leaders are promising to prevent coalition forces from wresting control over the city of Kandahar. Over the course of the four days we have been "in country" this time, coordinated attacks by suicide bombers have increased dramatically, causing more than 50 civilian dead and wounded. Taliban propaganda organs blame "the American and European trespassers" for the casualties. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has responded by promising to dispatch more than 1,000 additional Afghan police to the region.
Keeping this commitment is a major challenge. DEA, military and contract civilian trainers and mentors acknowledge that fielding a "qualified and capable Afghan security force" is essential to winning the fight here in "opium central." But privately, they wonder whether they can train and equip adequate numbers by next summer, when the Obama administration has promised to start withdrawing American troops.
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.