Test Case: Marjah
Friday, April 02, 2010
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Springtime. Back home, Congress is in recess, the kids are out of school and the redbuds, dogwoods and cherry trees are about to bloom. Here, south of the Hindu Kush, opium poppies are in full blossom, the harvest is about to come in and it's the start of what the locals call "fighting season." Though people in both countries have come to accept those conditions as "patterns of life," some here intend to change the archetype for the people of Afghanistan. If their plan succeeds, it could prove to be the undoing of the Taliban -- and mark the beginning of the end of this long war. And most of the so-called mainstream media will have missed the moment.
Last week, three high-profile visitors came to Afghanistan, and all talked about the future of the fight. Our commander in chief came for six hours of meetings at Bagram Airbase and in Kabul. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was here for two days of briefings and meetings with U.S., coalition and Afghan commanders and troops. In both cases, major media reports focused on U.S. and civilian casualties, the upcoming "final offensive" here in Kandahar and the alleged corruption of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother Ahmed, the head of Kandahar's provincial council. But the visitor who may have made the most important contribution to bringing an end to the Taliban was the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele Leonhart.
Leonhart, it should be noted, is a DEA special agent and the first administrator of the agency to make an official visit to an active war zone. More than 90 of her special agents and support personnel are deployed here, and in the past six months, three of them have been killed in action, and another was wounded. During her three-day inspection tour of Afghanistan, she conferred with U.S., coalition and Afghan officials to review and approve next steps in taking down what she calls the "Taliban narco-insurgency."
In Afghanistan, farmers, insurgents and corrupt officials all rely on income derived from the spring poppy harvest. The goal of the plan -- developed by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson's Marine expeditionary brigade based at Camp Leatherneck, DEA specialists on the ground and "in-country" U.S. agricultural and development experts -- is to undermine the networks that finance the Taliban and abet the corruption of Afghan government officials, without disrupting the livelihood of poor farmers who may have been coerced into growing opium by insurgent networks.
Breaking these connections without alienating the civilian population in what has been a Taliban stronghold is no small task. More than seven U.S. Marine and Afghan national security force battalions have been committed to the mission. So have significant resources of the DEA and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which will provide micro-grants to farmers who do not harvest the poppies they planted last fall. Cash will be given to stimulate small businesses and encourage repairs to economic infrastructure damage incurred during combat operations.
Our Fox News team accompanied Leonhart; Ambassador Anthony Wayne, coordinator of U.S. development and economic assistance in Afghanistan; and Thomas Harrigan, DEA's chief of operations, to Marjah. There they met with those who will be the final arbiters of whether the plan succeeds -- local officials and civilians.
"We all have a lot to do in this effort, but I'm optimistic. These are very entrepreneurial, hardworking people," Wayne told me as we walked down a street where gunfights raged just a few weeks ago. The provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, widely regarded as one of the most competent in Afghanistan, has signed on, said one of the Marine officers involved in developing the plan. "That's what we need," the officer added.
There is more that is needed, as well, e.g., a hospital or at least a clinic, schools, roads, bridges, electricity, improved irrigation -- the basic services government is supposed to provide or assure. And there is another element that is crucial for success -- showing the people that their government is serious about cleaning up corruption. That's a key part of what the DEA brings to the fight.
"The most effective judicial system in Afghanistan is the special narcotics court," a Marine officer noted. "Marines prosecute enemy targets with bombs and bullets. The DEA, Afghan National Interdiction Unit and special investigative units collect evidence to prosecute targets differently but just as effectively."
Leonhart agrees. Standing beside me on the dusty streets of Marjah, she said, "The DEA is completely committed to winning this battle. Our blood has been spilled here. Locking up corrupt officials involved with narcotics is not only good for the people of Afghanistan; it's good for these Marines and the American people, too." She's right.