We are blogging the latest news about America's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Email us at AfPak [at] huffingtonpost.com. Follow Nico on Twitter; follow Nicholas on Twitter. See archives of 'At War' here.
With reporting by Faiz Lalani.
Al Qaeda-Taliban split? David Cloud and Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times report that the Afghan Taliban have begun disassociating themselves from Al Qaeda, fearing that links to the international terrorist network threaten the Taliban's long-term survival and the group's efforts to moderate its image. Pakistan's stepped up military campaign, along with intensified U.S. drone strikes, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions have made it riskier for the Taliban to harbor Al Qaeda fighters. Al Qaeda's utility to the Taliban may have also run out: "In the past, Al Qaeda was able to offer the Taliban bomb-making experts, experienced fighters and large amounts of cash for operations in Afghanistan in return for haven in Taliban-controlled areas near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border," but, with Al Qaeda's resources and operational capacity dwindling, it is perhaps too risky for the Taliban to cooperate with them. However, the Pakistan-based Haqqani network--a group that is active in the Afghan insurgency--maintains links to Al Qaeda, despite suffering heavy casualties from drone strikes.
5:30 PM ET -- Afghan army performed well in Marjah. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports on the contribution of Afghan troops to the successes in Operation Moshtarak last month. Speaking with U.S. soldiers who fought besides the Afghan National Army in Marjah, Flintoff learned that "the Afghan army performed very well." Battle-hardened and eager, many of the participating Afghan troops had previously fought the Taliban in Khost and in other parts of the country. But there were also instances that displayed the lack of discipline in the Afghan army: during the third of the Marjah offensive, the Afghans, by eagerly rushing after the Taliban, frustrated the Marines' efforts to call an airstrike. Despite their need to be "reined in," Afghan troops--armed with their knowledge of local culture and language--are a strong stabilizing presence in Marjah, noted Flintoff.
5:20 PM ET -- Former Pakistani intelligence chief says U.S. should talk to Mullah Omar Talking to CNN, Pakistan's ex-head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Hamid Gul, said that the U.S. should negotiate with Mullah Omar, the "father of the Taliban." Gul encouraged face-to-face talks between U.S. officials and Omar, who he said could be reached through Pakistani's military. The military's public relations team, however, denied that Pakistan had contact with Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders. According to Gul, Omar is "the only person who can improve U.S. interests in Afghanistan." So far, the U.S. has rejected plans to negotiate with the Taliban chief; the Taliban has also denied that Mullah Omar is open to negotiations.
5:10 PM ET -- President Obama donates to Afpak charity. President Obama will reportedly donate $100,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize winnings to the Central Asia Institute, a charity that supports community-based educations for girls in northern Pakistan and rural regions of Afghanistan. The institute was founded by Greg Mortenson, who wrote Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace, One School at a Time, a book about his efforts to promote literacy in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.
5:00 PM ET -- Make deal with Hekmatyar if price is right Would a deal with the infamous Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar be all that bad?, asks Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy. On Tuesday, The New Republic's Michael Crowley wrote about a potential deal between the brutal Hekmatyar and the U.S. Hounshell believes that the deal--so long as it yields results--is probably worth it. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and other equally heinous warlords already work the U.S. in Afghanistan, and adding yet another to help defeat Al Qaeda would be the pragmatic choice, he says.
4:20 PM ET -- Musa Qala, an example of success? Musa Qala--a town in Afghanistan's northern Helmand province--will soon be transferred to U.S. Marines, reports the BBC's Caroline Wyatt. British soldiers fought the Taliban successfully in 2007 and re-took the district, which was one of the centers of the drug trade. Musa Qala is also an example of an area where Taliban reintegration efforts worked: the "local Taliban commander, Mullah Salaam, helped turn the tide after a controversial deal between British troops and tribal elders to keep the insurgents out had collapsed." Taliban insurgents are kept out by the local police and normalcy has returned to the area--shops now sell Bollywood DVDs and shiny motorcycles, items the Taliban shunned. Departing British troops note a sense of achievement as they leave to American troops a pacified town that was once overrun with insurgents.
3:20 PM ET -- Gallup poll shows Taliban unpopular in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gallup's November-December 2009 opinion polls on the Taliban shows that 72 percent and 79 percent of Pakistanis and Afghans, respectively, view the Taliban's presence in the region negatively. The Taliban are now even more unpopular in Pakistan than revealed in the May-June 2009 poll, in which 15 percent of Pakistanis saw the Taliban in a positive light. The latest poll shows that now only 4 percent of Pakistanis rate the Taliban favorably. In Afghanistan, however, while the number of people who viewed the Taliban negatively has remained about the same, now 13 percent of Afghans see the Taliban as having a positive influence on the region, an increase of 4 percentage points from the polls conducted during the summer. The polls bode well for the U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani governments, which are currently trying to defeat the Taliban insurgency.
Gallup's surveys show few Afghans and even fewer Pakistanis view the Taliban's presence as a positive influence, which suggests there may be popular support for government efforts to dislodge the Taliban. Public support will be an important factor in the coming months if Pakistan continues its anti-Taliban operations and as the U.S. and coalition forces begin their offensive in Kandahar.
1:40 PM ET -- Prisoners in Afghanistan tortured. The U.S. State Department's 2009 human rights report on Afghanistan states that prisoners are often tortured and abused in Afghan prisons. Methods of torture used include: "beating by stick, scorching bar or iron bar, flogging by cable, battering by rod, electric shock, deprivation of sleep, water and food, abusive language, sexual humiliation and rape."
The current Conservative government in Canada has come under increasing fire over the past few months for ignoring reports by diplomats that Afghan prisoners, who were transferred from Canadian custody to Afghan security forces, were tortured. The opposition parties contend that this oversight by Canadian troops and officials constitutes a violation of international human rights law.
1:30 PM ET -- India to send 40 commandos to Afghanistan to protect its citizens. India will be sending 40 commandos to Kabul to protect its assets and citizens in Afghanistan, where in recent weeks Indians have been targeted by insurgents, reports Zee News. The commandos, belonging to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, will be deployed at Indian missions and at guest houses used by Indian citizens. On February 26, 2010, a guest house complex, where Indian medical staff were residing, was attacked, killing at least 16 people.
1:10 PM ET -- Anti-war protests on March 20. Iraq war veteran and anti-war activist Mike Prysner calls on Americans to "say 'NO' to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 'YES' to spending money on education, health care, and other human needs here at home." Prysner questions the White House and the Pentagon's argument for the renewed war in Afghanistan, and says that it's time for "a fighting mass movement of the people" to challenge the U.S. role in Central Asia. His organization March Forward! (www.MarchForward.org) will be protesting the war in the streets of Washington, D.C, San Francisco, and Los Angeles on March 20.
1:00 PM ET -- Was Marjah a drug bust? "When U.S. marines raided the notorious Lachoya opium bazaar in the southwestern Afghan region of Marjah at the start of their massive military offensive there last month, they found 700 kg of raw opium and 25 kilos of heroin," writes Tim McGirk of Time. Marjah, until Operation Moshtarak led NATO and Afghan troops into the area, was a hub for international drug syndicates, and according to the UN, it had the world's highest concentration of opium production. Part of the reason behind the offensive in Marjah was to cut off the Taliban's drug funds. But many of the residents of Marjah also depended on the drug trade, leaving Western and Afghan officials unsure of how to break that dependency. Some counter-narcotics experts have advocated that the poppy crops be destroyed; others, like NATO commander General McChrystal, fear that destroying the crops could enrage the local fighters, who might then join the insurgency.
12:20 PM ET -- Pakistan's provocative missile tests. Pakistan's navy launched missiles and torpedoes from aircraft, ships, and submarines in the Arabian Sea on Friday, in what it called a message to "nefarious" forces--a label often reserved for its neighboring rival, India. While both nations regularly conduct missile tests, Friday's test was followed by an aggressive notice to India, stating that "[t]his strike capability would also send a message of deterrence to anyone harboring nefarious designs against Pakistan."
Just recently, a recent initiative to restart the Indian-Pakistani peace process failed because the two sides were unable to "reconcile differences over the timing, modalities and agenda for future talks," wrote former Pakistani Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi in the Daily Mail.
11:00 AM ET -- Afghan women in secret shelters. ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer visited a secret women's shelter in Afghanistan, where she saw "women who were beaten, bruised and badly scarred." Sawyer tells the story of Bebe, a 17-year-old whose Taliban husband cut off her nose and ears as punishment; Bebe had tried to run away from the constant abuse of her husband and his family. Ninety percent of Afghan women have experienced human rights violations, said Manizha, who runs the shelter Sawyer visited. While many other Afghans and other observers have said that NATO's occupation is only harming Afghans, Manizha and other women's rights advocates believe that NATO's presence helps defend human rights in Afghanistan.
10:30 AM ET -- Lahore suicide attacks kill dozens. The Pakistani city of Lahore saw its second major suicide attack in a week on Friday, as suicide bombers targeted army vehicles, killing at least 43 people and wounding 100 people. Earlier this week, suicide attackers hit a counter-terrorism office in Lahore, which killed at least 14. The recent attacks against military and police officials are believed to be in retaliation for Pakistan's stepped up offensive against militants in the country's northwest.
From the AP:
The violence also comes amid signs of a Pakistani crackdown on Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida operatives using its soil. Among the militants known to have been arrested is the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
The Pakistani Taliban, meanwhile, are believed to have lost their top commander, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a U.S. missile strike in January. The group has denied Mehsud is dead but has failed to prove he's still alive.
Militant attacks in Pakistan frequently target security forces, though civilian targets have not escaped.