Test Case: Marjah

This is the third in a series of reports from Afghanistan.


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.

Check out Oliver North's video reports from Afghanistan

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 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 may well have been the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 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 last 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 Brigadier General 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 are significant resources of the DEA and the American embassy in Kabul which will provide micro-grants to farmers who do not harvest the poppy they planted last fall. Cash will be given to stimulate small businesses and encourage repairs to economic infrastructure incurred during combat operations.

Our Fox News team accompanied Administrator Leonhart; Ambassador Anthony Wayne, coordinator of U.S. development and economic assistance in Afghanistan; and Thomas Harrigan, DEA's director 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, hard working people," Ambassador 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, adding "that's what we need."

There is more that is needed as well: 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 narcotics interdiction units and special investigative units, collect evidence to prosecute targets differently, but just as effectively."

Michele 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.

— Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of "War Stories" on Fox News Channel and the author of "American Heroes."

Lt. Col. Oliver L. North (ret.) serves as host of the Fox News Channel documentary series "War Stories with Oliver North." From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator on the National Security Council staff. "Counterfeit Lies," is his novel about how Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Click here for more information on Oliver North