The government again is making a big deal about reducing civilian casualties. But these casualties are already at a historic low, and trying to drive them any lower will mean less effective operations against the Taliban and more dead Afghan and foreign troops. The Taliban and drug gangs have mobilized (via bribes or threats) local media to protest the deaths (actual or otherwise, no rumor is wasted) of Afghan civilians at the hands of foreign troops. The enemy is encouraged by the recent Dutch decision to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban deliberately targeted the Dutch because they knew that the leftist parties in Holland were eager to get out of Afghanistan. The leftist parties in the West are more likely to be sympathetic with Islamic radicals and prefer a policy of no military intervention. The Islamic radicals play on this, with some success, at every opportunity. Australian, Canadian, German and British leftists are now pressuring their governments to withdraw, the implication being that the Americans will take care of it or, if the Americans pull out, it won't really be a problem that military forces can do anything for.
Pakistan revealed that it had, so far this month, arrested over a dozen Afghan Taliban leaders who were hiding out in Pakistan. The United States and Afghanistan had long accused Pakistan of deliberately ignoring these men, as part of a Pakistani effort to use the Taliban to control events in Afghanistan. It was Pakistani military intelligence agencies that created the Taliban, in Afghan refugee camps, back in the early 1990s. Many Pakistani intel officials feel that they "own" the Taliban, and have been reluctant to do anything that would harm their "asset." But over the last decade, the "asset" has increasingly become a danger to Pakistan, and generally gone out of control.
In Marjah, the Taliban human shield tactics are slowing things down, with commanders estimating that it will take another 2-3 weeks to clear all the enemy gunmen out of the town. Troops have to be particularly careful that there are no civilians in the way, and sometimes Taliban fighters are allowed to escape because of the risk of civilian injuries. But the Taliban can only slow down their defeat, not avoid it. NATO commanders are satisfied with the results in Marjah, where Taliban pledges to defeat NATO forces were obviously false. The Taliban also turned out to be sloppy, leaving behind documents and equipment (for making bombs and repairing weapons) that could have been moved. Apparently, some of the Taliban believed their own propaganda.
NATO commanders are ready to use the "Marjah Method" on Kandahar (or at least neighborhoods where the Taliban have established a strong presence, as well as bomb workshops, safe houses for Taliban gunmen and facilities for drug smuggling and distribution operations.)
As part of the pacification process in Helmand, as NATO and Afghan troops clear out the Taliban, government workers conduct opinion polls to get a better idea of what the locals want, and how they regard the Taliban, drug gangs, the central government and the foreign troops. While some of the answers are suspect (or just circumspect), they do give commanders are better idea of who they are dealing with and what progress is being made.
In Helmand, a motorcycle bomb in front of a police building killed three and wounded eleven. The Taliban still depend on roadside bombs, mines and suicide bombers to cause most of the casualties on Afghan security forces and foreign troops. But these casualties have already declined because of the disruption to Taliban operations caused by the attack on Marjah ( the major Taliban combat support center in Helmand).
February 21, 2010: In central Afghanistan, U.S. Special Forces called in an air strike on three minibus vehicles believed to contain Taliban gunmen on their way to carry out an attack. The vehicles hit turned out to contain over twenty civilians. Meanwhile, in Kandahar (the largest city near Helmand) two Taliban leaders were captured. Several Taliban leaders have been killed or captured lately, as the Marjah attack, and other recent NATO operations, have disrupted Taliban security and made leaders more vulnerable to detection and capture.
February 18, 2010: U.S. and NATO troops have seized all the key roads and locations in Marjah, and now have to deal with the several hundred Taliban gunmen left behind to, apparently, fight to the death, using human shields to generate some dead civilians for Taliban propagandists. In ten days of fighting in Marjah, six U.S. troops have been killed. This is about normal for Afghanistan, although low by Iraq standards, and very low by historical standards.