Tactical Pause

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

Some commanders call it a "tactical pause" to give time for additional U.S. and allied troops to surge into the country. Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the operational commander of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan, calls it "repositioning." Others say the reduced "op-tempo" 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 ROE (rules of engagement). None of us have 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."

Whatever it's called, it's apparent that offensive operations have been scaled back. That means Taliban insurgents are getting a "breather" they don't deserve.

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In interviews with senior officers I was reminded that General Stanley McChrystal's "population centric" counterinsurgency strategy mandates the primary mission of U.S. and allied troops is 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 that they are being restricted from conducting offensive operations against an enemy who will take advantage of the reduced op-tempo.

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."

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.

Last summer, plans were drawn up to interdict cross-border "ratlines" as a means of de-funding the Taliban. But the Obama administration's five-month delay in "surging" additional U.S. troops and trainers to Afghanistan has resulted in too few "boots on the ground" to shut down the frontier. As a consequence, the effort to reduce this spring's opium harvest is being limited to a "test case" in the recently secured Marjah district of central Helmand.

Though the Marjah operation and parallel efforts by ISAF in Nad-Ali, Now Zad and Garmsir, have resulted in reduced opium production, the Karzai government in Kabul has been slow to capitalize on the gains elsewhere in the country. Only 27 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces currently have full-time Provincial Reconstruction Teams in operation. Some Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) — like the commando kandaks which are partnered with U.S. special operations units — are well trained and equipped, but many are barely prepared.

Our Fox News team has now accompanied more than two dozen combined U.S./Afghan units on combat operations and seen the full spectrum of ANSF readiness. On one such mission last week, U.S. personnel were stunned when the Afghan National Army company commander they had been advising "declined" to board the MI-17 helicopters carrying his troops on a cordon and search operation.

Perhaps he "stayed home" because he knew his men better than we did. During the mission, led by a capable Afghan sergeant, only a handful of his troops exhibited the slightest tactical proficiency. Carrying their AK-47 rifles slung over their shoulders seemed to be SOP. The platoon's machine gunner ditched his Kevlar helmet. In its stead, he wore a white turban around his head. Chuck Holton, my former U.S. Army Ranger cameraman, and I spent the day staying as far from him as we could, knowing the he was Target No. 1 for a sniper. Thankfully the Taliban were out to lunch or went to ground to avoid being spotted on the thermal sights of the Apache helicopters overhead.

There are some very good, brave and competent Afghan soldiers and police, but not enough. The commandos and Narcotics Interdiction Units we have seen are the kind of troops you want on your flank in a gunfight. Unfortunately, the "tactical pause" now underway in Afghanistan won't help any of them get any better or help our troops do what they know they can do: win!

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