February 16, 2010: Pakistan confirmed that it had captured the number two Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Brader, in Karachi. This happened last week, in a joint U.S.-Pakistani intelligence operation. Mullah Abdul was the chief military planner for Afghanistan. Senior Afghan Taliban leaders have long been suspected of hiding in Karachi, along with hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban who have fled there. That's because the city is home to over two million Pushtuns (out of a city population of 12 million). About half these Pushtuns are Afghans (refugees from the 1980s war with Russia) and their children. Since Pushtuns, as a group, are ill equipped for urban living (low literacy, and few technical skills), most are poor. The low rent neighborhoods are full of Pushtuns, who are also overrepresented in criminal gangs. But the Pushtuns are closely watched by the police, and have earned some peace by not encouraging or supporting terrorists. Whenever this understanding is violated, as it is from time to time, the police lock a lot of people up, and even expel Afghans from the country. This last threat is much feared, and there's really no way to protect yourself from it, other than having done the cops some favors in the counter-terrorism department. So the fleeing Taliban expect shelter in Karachi, but not a new base from which to plan and carry out more terrorist attacks. Mullah Abdul could hide in Karachi, but the large reward for his capture provides the kind of economic opportunity Pushtuns are looking for in the big city. In the last year, many senior Afghan Taliban have moved from Quetta (the largest city in Baluchistan, in southwest Pakistan), to Karachi, because the Pakistani government began allowing American missile armed UAVs to operate in Baluchistan, and Pakistani intelligence threatened to come after the many Taliban living openly in Quetta. Mullah Abdul has been active in peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban. These talks have not been going far of late, but that may change with Mullah Abdul in custody.
The fighting in Marjah would be going more quickly were it not for the more strict ROE (Rules Of Engagement), intended to minimize civilian casualties. The Taliban and drug gangs have invested a lot in the local media, to make each civilian death, at the hands of foreign troops, a major story. The majority of civilian combat deaths are at the hands of the Taliban or drug gangs, and the local media plays those down (or else). It's a sweet deal for the bad guys, and a powerful battlefield tool. The civilians appreciate the attention, but the ROE doesn't reduce overall civilian deaths, because the longer the Taliban have control of civilians in a combat situations, the more they kill. The Taliban often use civilians as human shields, and kill those who refuse, or are suspected of disloyalty. In places like Marjah, civilians are eager to get the Taliban killed or driven away, as quickly as possible. The number of civilian deaths, at the hands of NATO/Afghan forces, in the operations around Marhah, are spectacularly low by historical standards. The troops know this, some of the civilians know this, but the media doesn't care and the Taliban need a media win, as a way to extract something that is, otherwise, a military disaster for them.
U.S./NATO commanders are making the best of the situation, knowing that they have troops capable of driving the civilian casualties way down (at some cost to friendly troops, in terms of their own casualties and time spent under fire), and that the tribal leaders appreciate dealing with outsiders who look out for the locals. That sort of thing rarely happens in Afghanistan, although such good deeds rarely go unpunished. The local tribal leaders will still lie, cheat and steal when dealing with outsiders. But the tribal leaders see the Afghan government, and their NATO allies, as a better deal than the Taliban and the drug gangs. The Taliban imposed seemingly random lifestyle rules on locals, and forced families to surrender daughters as wives for Taliban fighters (this built loyalty in the groom, but perpetual hostility from his new in-laws.) The drug gangs were gangsters, and acted like it. They had too much money, too much power and corrupted the youth with a gangster lifestyle, and drug addiction (usually opium). While some of the locals were getting rich off the drug trade, the majority wanted it gone. It won't be known if the battle of Marjah is won for several months after the shooting stops. The key actions take place when Afghan police and officials come in to rebuild the local government. People in Marjah are expecting the usual corruption and incompetence, but NATO has tried to put together an Afghan team that will work more effectively than in the past. Marjah is a big test for Afghan troops, and civil administrators. There is more confidence in the Afghan troops, who are led by NCOs and officers who have years of experience, along with months of training from NATO trainers and military schools. The Afghan units still don't come off as tight and together as their foreign counterparts. But to the practiced eye, the Afghan troops sent into Marjah seem to know what they are doing, and confident of getting the job done.
February 15, 2010: In Helmand province, an American air strike killed a local Taliban commander, and five Arab terrorists who worked for him. In Marjah, the remaining Taliban have recovered from the shock and disorganization they felt after the initial NATO assault. The Taliban had rigged several neighborhoods with boobytraps and roadside bombs, and placed gunmen in homes that also held civilians being used as human shields. Clearing out these areas takes a while, as it requires locating the bombs and getting an idea of how many enemy gunmen were around, and how many civilians they were holding. Sometimes, the Taliban were seen moving outside at night, with some civilian captives as a form of protection from the Americans (who are known to see in the dark, and strike without warning via missile armed UAVs). The Taliban do eventually lose these neighborhood battles, but it can take the better part of the day to clear a few blocks, and a few dozen, enemy gunmen. Some of the locations being cleared had long been used as a Taliban bases or safe houses. In some cases, troops discovered rooms full of weapons, explosives or other military equipment. The intelligence troops were doing well, picking up documents, memory sticks and the occasional laptop. Lots of good intel on Taliban ops throughout Helmand province.
February 14, 2010: In southern Kandahar, NATO and Afghan troops captured two local Taliban leaders, in separate operations. Both of the Taliban supervisors were in charge of planning and carrying out roadside bomb and mine attacks in a particular area. There is a lot of effort being put into shutting down the several dozen organizations that actually plan and execute these attacks throughout southern Afghanistan. Each Taliban cell that gets shut down, means that, for a while, attacks will sharply decline in a town or chunk of countryside, until the Taliban can rebuild their local bomb organization. Meanwhile, two smart bombs (guided missiles) missed their target and hit the wrong compound, killing twelve civilians. Major win for the Taliban.
February 13, 2010: The long promised (and advertised) assault on the southern town of Marjah began in earnest, with a surprise, pre-dawn. helicopter assault into the middle of the town. This, and the well planned ground assault, disrupted Taliban defense plans for a while. Taliban propaganda had promised a heroic resistance, and defeat of the foreign troops. No one believed that, and the smart money was on the foreigners. Despite weeks of advance warning, most civilians have stayed in Marjah, and NATO radio broadcasts warn civilians to stay inside until the fighting is over, or Afghan or foreign troops come by and say that it is safe. Most of the explosions heard in the town are Taliban bombs going off. These make a different sound than the smart bombs (including GPS guided artillery shells and rockets) used by the foreign troops. The 15,000 U.S. (marines), British and Afghan troops are facing up to 2,000 Taliban fighters. Some Taliban were detected fleeing the town in the last few weeks, and it's unclear how many of the Taliban remaining will actually fight. Because of the ROE, a Taliban can simply put down his firearms, and walk away from a compound full of armed men.
February 12, 2010: Preliminary military operations began on the outskirts of Marjah.
February 11, 2010: NATO and Afghan troops have halted movement on all the roads out of the town of Marjah. Taliban fighters (even if travelling without their weapons) can no longer freely leave. This indicates that the battle is about to begin. The more active NATO and Afghan military operations in Helmand for the last few weeks has disrupted Taliban and drug gang activities. For the last year, there has been increasing pressure on the drug gangs in Helmand, and their business has declined. Attempts to move opium and heroin production to other parts of Afghanistan have largely failed.