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AT WAR: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban Commander, Captured

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We are blogging the latest news about America's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Email us at AfPak [at] Follow Nico on Twitter; follow Nicholas on Twitter. See archives of 'At War' here.

Powerful video of Afghan firefight. Britain's official Afghan War site highlights this riveting piece produced by Channel 4 news.

Video journalist Vaughan Smith has spent a month with the British army in Afghanistan ahead of Operation Moshtarak.

He went on patrol in Helmand province with a group of soldiers tasked with keeping the Taliban out of the village of Kushal Kalay, so that another group could go in and clear the area of the Taliban's Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs.

One hesitates to extrapolate much from one brief glimpse into the fighting in Afghanistan. But this clip does give some sense of why the world's most advanced militaries are so challenged by these Taliban fighters.

5:30 PM ET -- Rocket system is back in use, did hit its target. The BBC reports that the rocket system that was involved in the launch of the missile that struck an Afghan house and killed 12 civilians in a hou Sunday is now once again being used by coalition forces. As Wired's Danger Blog notes, use of the system, known as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), was suspended Sunday after the incident. "The review into the incident is still ongoing, but it has been determined that the HIMARS system itself was not to blame. Use of the HIMARS system has been reinstated for defense purposes in accordance with the tactical directive and standard use of engagement rules," NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician told Wired.

There have been conflicting accounts of whether or not the missile that struck the house had hit the correct target. The U.S. military initially said the missile had struck the wrong house, only to reverse course a day later and insist that the rocket had hit its intended target. The latter explanation, the New York Times notes, does not entirely fit with accounts from Marines on the ground. NATO, meanwhile, had also initially said that the missile went off target. A British General attributed the conflicting accounts to the "fog of war."

4:54 PM ET -- First U.S. casualty in Marjah offensive. "US Marine is killed by an IED blast during Operation Moshtarak in southern Afghanistan," NBC News reports.

4:44 PM ET -- 'Unadulterated good news.' The New Yorker's Steve Coll sees the capture of Taliban senior commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as possible evidence of a major change of course from Pakistan's military leadership, away from "sheltering the Afghan Taliban."

If, through a combination of pressure and enticement, Pakistan and the United States can draw sections of the Taliban into peaceful negotiations, while incarcerating those who refuse to participate, it will produce a sweeping change in the war. With enough momentum, such a strategy would also increase the incentives for Pakistan and Taliban elements to betray Al Qaeda's top leaders. It's been a while since there has been unadulterated good news out of Pakistan. Today there is.

4:39 PM ET -- Amnesty International: About 10,000 civilians have fled conflict zone.

4:02 PM ET -- Photos.

A dog looks on during a meeting between U.S. Lt. Col. Burton Shields, commander of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry of Task Force Stryker, and village leaders in the Badula Qulp area, West of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. (AP)

"Navy hospital corpsmen of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, prepare talk to Azerha, a 4-year-old Afghan girl injured by a piece of shrapnel from an explosion near her home Feb. 10, before inserting a needle to decompress her collapsed lung. Azerha's brother, Quassiam, brought her for medical treatment to the Marine encampment at the Five Points intersection, a key junction of roads between Marjeh and Nawa. Azerha was flown to a medical trauma facility and is expected to make a full recovery." Via.

3:57 PM ET -- Taliban officials finally admit that their senior military commander has been captured, a fact they had been disputing since the New York Times report first went live yesterday evening.

Pakistan's interior minister, on the other hand, is not as forthcoming.

The Pakistani government has denied the Afghan Taliban are based in Paksitan, and said the Quetta Shura does not exist. Baradar's capture in Karachi has cast further doubts on the Paksitani government's claims.

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, has called the report of Baradar's capture "propaganda" and said no joint operation between the ISI and the CIA took place. He stopped short of denying Baradar was in Pakistani custody, however.

"We are verifying all those we have arrested," Malik told Dawn. If there is any big target, I will show the nation."

"If the New York Times gives information, it is not a divine truth, it can be wrong," Malik continued. The New York Times broke the story of Baradar's capture.

11:18 AM ET -- "It is hard to know whether Monday was a very bad day or a very good day for Lance Cpl. Andrew Koenig. On the one hand, he was shot in the head. On the other, the bullet bounced off him."

Top Taliban commander captured in secret raid. The Taliban's top military commander has been captured in Pakistan in a joint operation by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence forces, The New York Times reported.

AP reports:

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, described as the No. 2 behind Taliban founder and Osama bin Laden associate Mullah Muhammad Omar, has been in Pakistan's custody for several days...

Baradar was captured in Karachi, Pakistan, in a raid by Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, with CIA operatives accompanying the Pakistanis, the Times reported. Pakistan has been leading the interrogation of Baradar, but Americans were also involved, it said.

Baradar heads the Taliban's military council and was elevated in the body after the 2006 death of military chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Usmani. Baradar is known to coordinate the movement's military operations throughout the south and southwest of Afghanistan. His area of direct responsibility stretches over Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.

If confirmed, Baradar's arrest would be a major setback for the Taliban.

He may also have information on the whereabouts of Omar and bin Laden.

CNN analyst Peter Bergen: This is a "huge deal... This the number two political figure in the Taliban."

Taliban claims Baradar is still free. "A spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan told The Associated Press that Baradar was still free, though he did not provide any evidence. 'We totally deny this rumor. He has not been arrested,' Zabiullah Mujahid told the AP by telephone. He said the report of the arrest was Western propaganda aimed at undercutting the Taliban fighting against an offensive in the southern Afghan town of Marjah, a Taliban haven. 'The Taliban are having success with our jihad. It is to try to demoralize the Taliban who are on jihad in Marjah and all of Afghanistan,' he said."

New York Times delayed publication of capture. From the Times report:

The New York Times learned of the operation on Thursday, but delayed reporting it at the request of White House officials, who contended that making it public would end a hugely successful intelligence-gathering effort. The officials said that the group's leaders had been unaware of Mullah Baradar's capture and that if it became public they might cover their tracks and become more careful about communicating with each other.

The Times is publishing the news now because White House officials acknowledged that the capture of Mullah Baradar was becoming widely known in the region.

What will be the impact of Baradar's capture? The initial consensus: who knows? Analysts seem to agree that the Baradar development is major news, but it's too early to say whether it will mark a major turning point in Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust at Registan effectively sums up the different possibilities:

Baradar supposedly runs the Quetta Shura, which is largely responsible for insurgent activity in the South - including the areas surrounding Marjeh. What his capture means for the day-to-day and strategic activities of the Taliban is unclear, though it could be game-changing.

On the other hand, the Taliban has weathered the death of senior, effective, influential figures before, like the former Taliban "senior military commander" until his death-by-America in 2007. The Taliban, notably, regrouped and kept on fighting hard.

At least in the short term, this could be a great wedge for the U.S. to wield against local powers. In the long term, it might actually mean little because he's really not that much of a wedge. [...]

Baradar wrote the Conduct Guidebook, which was meant to moderate some fo the Taliban's more nastier excesses. Much like the assassination of Nek Mohammed is what gave us five years of Baitullah Mehsud, there is a chance that Baradar's successor will be much worse. There is also the chance he'll be weaker and less formidable.

Worth reading his post in full.

Additional thoughts from Michael Cohen (who is more optimistic) and Gregg Carlstrom (who is less so).

1:43 AM ET -- Baradar 'providing intelligence.' So says the BBC, citing "senior officials."

1:33 AM ET -- More civilian deaths. "Three more Afghan civilians have been killed in the assault on a southern Taliban stronghold, NATO forces said Tuesday, highlighting the toll on the population from an offensive aimed at making them safer."

The AP has details:

The deaths -- in three separate incidents -- come after two errant U.S. missiles struck a house on the outskirts of the town of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children. Afghan officials said Monday that three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time of the attack. [...]

In two of the most recently reported incidents, Afghan men came toward NATO forces and ignored shouts and hand signals to stop, NATO said. The troops shot at the men and killed them. One of the shootings appeared to match an incident previously reported by The Associated Press.

In the third incident, two Afghan men were caught in the crossfire between insurgents and NATO forces. Both were wounded and one died of his injuries despite being given medical care, NATO said.

Taliban fighters have stepped up counterattacks against Marines and Afghan soldiers in Marjah, slowing the allied advance to a crawl despite Afghan government claims that the insurgents are broken and on the run.

Taliban fighters appeared to be slipping under cover of darkness into compounds already deemed free of weapons and explosives, then opening fire on the Marines from behind U.S. lines.

Ackerman: Don't torture Baradar. Spencer Ackerman writes:

Apparently Baradar has been in custody since last week and is being interrogated by both the Paks and us. (This is why the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group exists.) The ultimate point of fighting the Taliban is to compel them to give up fighting and accept some version of a post-Taliban order in Afghanistan. Torturing Baradar -- which the Pakistanis have been known to do -- is counterproductive to that effort. If we treat the guy respectfully, in a demonstrated way, it might spur a reconsideration of Taliban goals. I am not counting any chickens, but any hope of a game-changing possibility will be foreclosed upon if we or our allies torture Baradar.

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12:52 AM ET -- Mapping the Marjah offensive.

Around the Web

Meet the Taliban's New Chief -

Taliban Commander Is Captured - New York Times

Afghan Taliban Commander Is Captured in Raid - - A Top Taliban Commander Captured Alive

Captured top Taliban commander dies of injuries

Top Taliban Commander Is Captured In Pakistan -

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Top Taleban commander 'arrested'

Top Taliban commander captured in Karachi: India News