Event notice: Join the New America Foundation today at 3:30pm in Washington DC for a talk by Sciences Po professor Jean Pierre Filiu on the French view of al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Details available here.
The fog of war
Early Saturday morning, the international coalition began a much-anticipated military offensive with an airlift in the Taliban stronghold town of Marjah in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, pitting up to 15,000 Marines and soldiers against between 400 and 2,000 Taliban militants, including up to 100 foreign fighters, in a town of some 80,000 residents (NYT, AP, Wash Post, AFP, McClatchy, Times). The offensive was reportedly delayed one day at the request of Afghan officials, who wanted to give tribal elders a chance to talk the Taliban out of fighting, and coalition officers agreed although no one expected any major defections (WSJ).
Reporting is mixed on the progress of the offensive so far, as some outlets report "stiff" Taliban resistance, while others say Taliban militants have fled the area, possibly over the border to Pakistan (Wash Post, CNN, NYT, WSJ, AJE, Pajhwok, NYT). Afghan and western officials have been mostly positive thus far, while the Taliban have criticized coalition forces "bombing and launching rockets on Marjah… bothering" the people (WSJ).
As many as 12 civilians were killed Sunday after Afghan troops came under intense small-arms fire from a mud-walled compound and the returning rockets missed their intended target, landing about 300 hundred yards away (NYT, AFP, CNN, Pajhwok, AP, Times, BBC, Guardian, Wash Post). Marjah’s heavily mined roads have meant slow going for coalition troops, and war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports that it took a platoon of Marines nine hours to walk one mile yesterday, and Christopher Torchia recounts a firefight in the Badula Qulp region of Helmand (AP, WSJ, Wash Post, AP, LAT).
Karen DeYoung assesses that the Marjah offensive is a major test of the Obama administration’s strategy in Afghanistan, while Matthew Rosenberg writes that it represents a major test for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his fledgling Afghan army (Wash Post, WSJ). Dexter Filkins and David Sanger analyze the strategy behind the offensive, and reporter C. J. Chivers and war photographers Tyler Hicks and Bryan Denton document the operation and tactics (NYT, NYT, NYT, WSJ, NYT).
As Operation Moshtarak ("Together" in Dari) enters its third day, coalition forces are facing teams of Taliban snipers, though U.S. officials say Marines are making "steady progress" throughout the area and the senior Afghan commander for the operation stated that Nad Ali and Marjah are "almost all" under control (Reuters, AFP, AP). Afghan and NATO officials have also been holding meetings with local leaders in Marjah, to help pave the way for a permanent government presence (NYT).
Kidnappings and elections
On Sunday, the Afghan Taliban released a video of two French journalists who were kidnapped in Kapisa at the end of December, showing the two men pleading with their government to negotiate (AFP). Several Afghan employees were also taken, and French media has not disclosed the names of the reporters captured.
And the Afghan government has drafted a revised election law that would substantially limit the number of women allowed to serve in the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament, remove the three foreign members from the five-person body that investigates electoral fraud, and proposes a series of qualifications for would-be presidents (Wash Post). These qualifications include having a bachelor’s degree, a "good reputation," and being a "wise and brave person" unaffected by "psychic diseases."
Drones and protests in Pakistan
Two suspected U.S. drone strikes in as many days have hit villages in the restive tribal region of North Waziristan in northwest Pakistan, killing several alleged militants in the first reported strikes in nearly two weeks (AP, Reuters, AFP; NYT, CNN, AFP, Reuters, Geo, AJE, Dawn). A suspected drone strike is believed to have mortally wounded Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud in mid-January, and the militant group has not produced evidence that he is still alive in almost a month, though local commanders continue to deny his death (The News). "I am dead sure he is alive," one claimed on Saturday.
Political tension is simmering in Pakistan, as the country’s Supreme Court rejected two judicial appointments late Saturday, only hours after the unpopular Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari announced them — allegedly without the approval of the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry, whose consultation is required by the Pakistani constitution (NYT, AP, WSJ, AFP, AJE). Pakistan’s leading opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, chimed in to call Zardari "the biggest threat to democracy," and many Pakistani lawyers have boycotted courts today to protest Zardari’s decision, which pits the embattled president against the powerful chief justice (Reuters, Dawn). Pro-government lawyers also took to the streets in some cities.
The Washington Post takes a look at the Obama administration’s apparent emphasis on targeted killings instead of captures for militant targets, determining that improved surveillance technology, a decrease in options for where to keep potential captives, and an increase in such attacks appears to have "tipped the balance in that direction" (Wash Post). And the National reports that civilian reconstruction in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the site of a major Pakistani military offensive last year, is struggling to take off (National).
The artsy type
The Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan, established four years ago to help preserve historic documents, put on a day-long show yesterday featuring photographs, paintings, and art films put together by Afghan women (Pajhwok). The CCAA has trained 60 women in the arts and has 30 more still learning.
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