KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - An "awful, evil mix" of Taliban hardliners, drug lords, black marketers and corrupt officials are funding the insurgency that Canadian troops are battling in the Panjwaii and Zhari districts of southern Afghanistan, a senior Canadian officer said Sunday.
"I call them the predators," Col. Fred Lewis, deputy commander of the task force in southern Afghanistan, told The Canadian Press in an interview in which he discussed efforts to uproot the insurgency in the Arghandab River Valley area.
Despite years of drought, the region remains one of the country's bread baskets, with plentiful grape orchards - along with huge marijuana and poppy fields that have developed into a major cash crop for farmers.
As Canadian troops continue to push ahead with Operation Baaz Tsuka in this former Taliban heartland, there seems to be a never ending supply of money to fund the hiring of more rebel fighters or for training suicide bombers brought in from Pakistan.
"I think more people are more and more convinced there's a pretty close connection (between the Taliban and the drug lords), which is pretty ironic because in 1996 when the Taliban took over the country one of their platforms was 'we're not doing drugs anymore,' " Lewis said.
"Why would the Taliban fight so hard for this Arghandab Valley triangle area that we're all so familiar with now? The fact is that valley has water and it's green," he said.
Lewis said probably a third of the marijuana and opium crops under cultivation in the Arghandab Valley are drug-related.
"So why do you fight for that? Lewis said. "Well if you're a drug lord who is making millions and millions and millions of dollars, is it worth paying guys $200 to fight so that the coalition doesn't come into your valley?"
The Taliban pay their fighters about US$200 a month.
"Yeah, I think there's a pretty close connection between the Taliban and drug lords. Is it about financing? Maybe. It's just putting two and two together and it's not based on any secret intelligence reports or anything," he added.
Lewis said using the term Taliban to describe all the forces fighting Canadian troops is probably inaccurate. A number of groups: religious, political and criminal have a stake in the ongoing instability.
For the drug lords, it comes down to making sure farmers in the area plant marijuana or opium poppies, Lewis said, claiming that ordinary farmers were being coerced into the drug trade.
"An Afghan farmer gets $200 a month for farming opium but my understanding is when he farms grapes he gets $500 a month. The ones making all the money are the drug lords," he said.
"When you're making in the millions, are you willing to have a gang along who shows up at two in the morning who says to Farmer Smith: 'You're growing opium next year, right?' "
Operation Baaz Tsuka, with the goal of helping Afghans defend themselves, is the only one that will eventually allow Afghanistan to emerge from the quagmire, said Lewis, who conceded that the Taliban are not going to go away.
There are probably about 500 Taliban hardliners in the province right now and likely still will be 10 years from now, he said.
"They may continue to exist for decades, but they (the Afghan people) can get to the level where they can deal with the situation," he said, noting that the overall population of the province is about two million.
Lewis said Canadians need to know that the war against the Taliban and their associates is winnable and a "noble cause" and it would be wrong to leave the Afghan people at their mercy.
"They are the drug lords, they are the black marketeers, they are probably certain corrupt leaders. You add that to the Taliban leadership and it is just an awful, evil mix," Lewis said.