Oliver North

ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Some commanders call it a "tactical pause" to give time for additional U.S. and allied troops to surge into the country. Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the operational commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, calls it "repositioning." Others say the reduced "optempo" is just part of a "realignment" necessary to prepare for a major offensive in Kandahar this June. The troops use a different term of art.

"This is b---s---," said one junior officer. He continued, "It's not the (rules of engagement). None of us has a problem with reducing the incidence of civilian casualties. But we need to stay on the offensive here if we're going to win." One soldier, after being told to "stand down" just before heading out on a night ambush, said, "We're being held hostage inside the wire." So it's apparent that -- whatever they're called -- offensive operations have been scaled back. That means Taliban insurgents are getting a breather they don't deserve.

In interviews with senior officers, I was reminded that Gen. Stanley McChrystal's "population-centric" counterinsurgency strategy mandates the primary mission of U.S. and allied troops be to protect the civilian population. The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with whom I have been embedded -- both conventional and special operations troops -- don't object to that goal. But they are complaining they are being restricted from conducting offensive operations against an enemy who will take advantage of the reduced optempo.

South of here in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the period from mid-April to mid-June is opium-harvesting season. Since 2002, when the Taliban turned to heroin to support their insurgency, it has been a time when "migrant workers" cross the border from Pakistan to work the poppy fields. It is also an opportunity for Taliban leaders to collect their cut of the "opium tax."

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Despite Taliban claims to Islamic purity, they collect a tax of 300-400 grams of opium per Jereeb of cultivated poppy-growing land. One Jereeb is 2,000 square meters -- about half the size of a U.S. football field. The tax rate is based on the "ushr," a traditional Islamic tax of one-tenth of the produce of agricultural land that in normal times is collected by the neighborhood mosque and redistributed as social welfare to the local needy. It's an Islamic version of wealth redistribution. The timing of the tax collection is dependent on the local harvest season.


Oliver North

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.