Special invitation: Join the New America Foundation and Foreign Policy magazine this Thursday for a half-day conference on al-Qaeda Central’s capabilities, allies, and messages. Details and RSVP here.
On the offensive
Earlier today, a NATO air strike killed at least 27 Afghan civilians in central Afghanistan, after the aircraft fired on what was mistakenly believed to be a group of militants en route to attack a joint NATO-Afghan convoy; additionally, a suicide bomber has killed around 15 people in the eastern province of Nangahar, reportedly including a former police chief and a tribal leader (AP, Reuters, BBC, NYT, ISAF; AP, Pajhwok). The incidents are unrelated to the ongoing coalition offensive in Marjah, for which Afghan President Hamid Karzai castigated NATO forces on Saturday over civilian deaths in only his second public pronouncement about Operation Moshatarak (WSJ, AP). Civilians in and around Marjah have been expressing their frustrations, including running out of food and water, with U.S. Marines in shuras, and Michael Phillips profiles an example of concern about civilian casualties slowing a potential air strike (NYT, WSJ, Independent, WSJ, AJE, LAT).
Taliban militants in Marjah have continued to put up "tough fighting" in what CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus yesterday on Meet the Press referred to as the "initial salvo" of a 12 to 18 month campaign (NYT, AP, MTP). As many as 600 Afghan police officers have been dispatched to Marjah to help "hold" the cleared areas of the southern Afghan town, which NATO officials believe will take at least 30 days to secure (AFP, BBC, WSJ). The Air Force has carried out 14 drone strikes near Marjah in recent days, and the number of the unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and bombing missions has quietly doubled in Afghanistan in the last year; the Los Angeles Times has a must-read about drone pilots in the first in its occasional series about remote-controlled warfare (NYT, LAT).
While war correspondent C. J. Chivers issued a fairly scathing review of the Afghan National Army’s performance this far in the Marjah campaign, writing that although its "soldiers have shown courage and a willingness to fight," the heavy lifting thus far has been done by U.S. Marines "in the presence of fledgling Afghan Army units, whose officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told," Dexter Filkins sees a "couple of large reasons" to believe the coalition has regained the battlefield momentum (NYT, NYT). Tactics in the battle for Marjah, it seems, are similar to "old-fashioned" campaigns: "on foot, with rifle," and the military is upping its intelligence efforts in the country (Wash Post, Wash Post).
In more analysis of the post-battle period of the Marjah offensive, Rajiv Chandrasekaran assesses the prospects for establishing local governance after the operations are over, highlighting the tension between installing the newly appointed district governor, a man who doesn’t come from Marjah and spent the last 15 years in Germany, and was selected as a friend of the current governor of Helmand, and Abdul Rahman Jan, a brutal narcotics-linked former police chief who is considered the "man with the most sway" in the area (Wash Post). Officials and analysts have said that neighboring Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold, may be next for the coalition, while Thom Shanker considers the somewhat unusual measures that came before the start of this offensive: opinion polling of what local residents wanted (Wash Post, Times, NYT).
Veteran reporter Jonathan Landay takes a very critical look at top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s role in keeping a few remote U.S. bases in the country open in spite of warnings from his field commanders that they were "vulnerable and had no tactical or strategic value," and were later attacked causing the deaths of U.S. soldiers (McClatchy). And the U.S. military’s support for a former Afghan warlord affiliated with Hizb-e-Islami who is taking control of the eastern district of Kamdesh in Nuristan province is causing friction with the State Department, which is concerned that the alliance may be a temporary step toward establishing a "personal fiefdom" in the mountainous border area (AFP).
The first European administration to fall because of the war in Afghanistan, the Dutch government collapsed on Saturday when the two main political parties failed to reach a consensus after 16 hours of meetings about whether Dutch troops will be withdrawn from the restive Uruzgan province in August this year as planned, after a NATO request to extend the Dutch tours (Reuters, Guardian, AJE, BBC, AP). The Dutch prime minister commented on Sunday, "If nothing else will take its place, then it ends," and analysts are concerned not only about the immediate impact on local security, but the ‘domino effect’ if other NATO countries rethink their commitments in Afghanistan (AP, NYT).
The Washington Post takes a fascinating look at the close and questionable ties between Afghanistan’s biggest private bank, Kabul Bank, and President Karzai’s family, members of whom have reportedly been given multimillion dollar loans for the purchase of "luxury villas in Dubai" (Wash Post). The bank’s founder and chairman commented, "What I’m doing is not proper, not exactly what I should do. But this is Afghanistan."
Bombings and interrogations in Pakistan
A suspected suicide car bombing targeting Pakistani security forces in the main town of Mingora in the Swat Valley killed around six people earlier this morning, in an area that has been declared largely cleared of Taliban militants (Geo, Reuters, AFP, BBC, AJE, Dawn, CP, AFP). Pakistani police were also attacked in two coordinated strikes in nearby towns in Mansehra district, 90 miles northwest of Islamabad, on Saturday, as Pakistani forces hammered the militant-ridden tribal area of South Waziristan, killing as many as 30 insurgents (AP, Dawn, Daily Times, CNN, BBC, Reuters).
Last Thursday’s suspected U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan that reportedly killed the brother of a prominent Afghan insurgent leader, Siraj Haqqani, apparently targeted the militants as they left the funeral of an Egyptian-Canadian al-Qaeda linked leader who had been killed the previous day in another drone attack (Dawn, AP). Sheikh Mansoor reportedly traveled back and forth often between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was believed to be the son of another significant militant who was killed in 2004.
And the recently captured second-in-command of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Baradar, reportedly provided the intelligence that led Pakistani authorities to arrest of one of the top ten most wanted Taliban leaders, Maulvi Kabir, a former Taliban governor of Afghanistan’s Nangahar province (Fox, AFP). The CIA is reportedly trying to get Baradar moved to Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, as the insurgent commander is not talking enough (LAT). Pakistani authorities have been leading his interrogation, and might object to turning him over to U.S. interrogators who could ask him about the relationships between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI. Kabul has been noticeably silent on Baradar’s capture (Pajhwok).
Tour de Pakistan
The 15th Tour de Pakistan, a bicycling race modeled on the Tour de France, is set to kick off next month with nearly 80 cyclists competing over 11 stages in the first two weeks of March (AFP). The course runs from Peshawar to Karachi, a distance of more than 1,000 miles.
Sign up here to receive the daily brief in your inbox.