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. Additional reporting by Faiz Lalani.
Washington Post: Marja offensive aimed to shape U.S. opinion on war. Gareth Porter writes for IPS News, "Senior military officials decided to launch the current U.S.-British military campaign to seize Marja in large part to influence domestic U.S. opinion on the war in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported Monday."
The Post report, by Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock, both of whom cover military affairs, said the town of Marja would not have been chosen as a target for a U.S. military operation had the criterion been military significance instead of impact on domestic public opinion.
The primary goal of the offensive, they write, is to "convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year long war...." U.S. military officials in Afghanistan "hope a large and loud victory in Marja will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield," according to Jaffe and Whitlock.
"You want to be able to define your narrative, and we've had trouble doing that in the past," said Mark Moyar, who has served as a civilian adviser to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. McChrystal is under pressure to show progress fast: President Obama has directed that U.S. troops begin to withdraw in July 2011.
In recent days, U.S. commanders in Kabul and Washington have gone to great pains to describe the Marja offensive as a new beginning. "This is the start point of a new strategy," one senior military official told reporters on Thursday. "This is our first salvo."
6:55 PM ET -- Karzai receives mild condemnation from Ottawa. Yesterday, the Guardian reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai passed a presidential decree allowing himself to appoint all five members of the independent Electoral Complaints Commission. As John Geddes at Maclean's magazine noted, the decree undermines free and fair elections in Afghanistan, and urged the Canadian government to formally protest the move. But Ottawa only issued a mild condemnation, saying that it was "concerned by early reports that the decree diminishes the level of expertise" of the ECC.
Geddes worries that Karzai's usurpation of power may not only threaten the future of Afghan democracy but also Western countries' commitment to the war: "[A]t some point Canada, as a major donor and military contributor to Afghanistan, must demand better from Karzai. That goes for the other Western countries deeply involved, too. Popular support in Europe and North America for the war against the Taliban is weak enough without adding yet more new, justified doubts about whether the Kabul regime is worth the trouble."
2:55 PM ET -- Is Kandahar next? As Operation Moshtarak makes daily headlines and as U.S casualties mount, some are wondering "why surging U.S. forces continue to invest their efforts and their numbers so heavily in Helmand. The axis of Taliban power...lies somewhat to the East, along the routes between Kandahar and the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi." Kandahar province, currently occupied by around 3,000 Canadian troops, straddles a porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, along which the Taliban seek safe havens.
But NATO officials informed the Guardian that Helmand was just the beginning. The current operation in Marjah is a "confidence builder" for a larger offensive this summer in Kandahar, during which we can expect to see equally intense, if not more extensive, combat:
"The Taliban is more dispersed in Kandahar and more integrated into the community - unlike Marjah, where the fighters are concentrated in one spot - so the operation will have to be targeted over a much bigger area,.
There is likely to be fighting across much of the province and out in extending into the militant hideouts in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan.
Thousands more troops are expected to be deployed to begin a major offensive by early summer.
"Kandahar [military operation] is imminent," said Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament for the city. "If they [Nato] don't come to Kandahar, all the operations mean nothing."
2:35 PM ET -- The tricky politics of Afghanistan. From a piece today by the dean of Capitol Hill reporters, David Rogers:
Britain's foreign secretary testifying before a Senate committee. Russian airspace opened to American cargo planes carrying lethal military supplies. High-level consultations with China. Shared border intelligence at the Khyber Pass.
And then there's the Muslim anti-war congressman struggling with the consequences for Afghan women if the Taliban return to power. "My people want me to be clear," Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told POLITICO. "But I'd rather be muddled right than clearly wrong."
These are just some of the different pieces that make Afghanistan a muddle -- and a very different kind of war for America.
Rogers' story nicely teases out some of the unique political and geopolitical facets of the Afghan war. Unfortunately, he doesn't delve any more deeply into Ellison's position -- we've reached out to Ellison's office to get more information.
1:28 PM ET -- Are we seeing a historic shift in Pakistan? In the latest issue of The New Yorker, journalist Steve Coll offers his thoughts on "Taking on the Taliban," arguing that "there are few strategic issues of greater importance to the outcome of President Obama's Afghan war [as Pakistan]." Simply put, one of the root problems for NATO in Afghanistan is its militarized neighbor, Pakistan, which has a historically cozy relationship with the Taliban. Coll discusses the latest development in the Afghan War -- the capture of senior Taliban commander Mullah Baradar -- and places it in the context of an ostensible change in Pakistan's strategic priorities in Afghanistan. After facing a string of terrorist attacks last year that killed 3,021 people -- including an attack on the Pakistani Army's headquarters in Rawalpindi in October 2009 -- the country's military may be considering greater cooperation with the United States in the fight against the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The root problem in this murkiest theatre of the Afghan war is not Pakistan's national character or even the character of its generals; rather, it involves Pakistan's interests. The Pakistani Army has learned over many years to leverage its grievances, dysfunction, bad choices, and perpetual dangers to extract from the United States the financial and military support that it believes it requires against India. At the same time, Pakistan's generals resent their dependency on America. For the I.S.I. [the Inter-services Intelligence agency] to repudiate the Taliban entirely, its officers would have to imagine a new way of living in the world -- to write a new definition of Pakistan's national security, one that emphasizes politics and economics over clandestine war. For now, many Pakistani generals imagine themselves masters of an old game: to be not so sweet that they will be eaten whole by the United States, but not so bitter that they will be spat out.
Coll hesitates to declare the recent cooperation from the Pakistanis as necessarily indicative of a strategic shift. He is convinced that unless "the geopolitical incentives that have informed Pakistan's alliance with the Afghan Taliban" are altered, the United States and NATO will continue to have a precarious ally to the east.
12:00 PM ET -- CNN reports from Marjah. -- In the video below, CNN's Atia Abawi follows a group of U.S Marines as they engage in gun battles with the Taliban. The Taliban have visibly dispersed from the area; they are attacking U.S troops by surprise in small groups of 10-14 and using trained marksmen. Abawi observes that Operation Moshtarak "is moving slowly but surely. The Marines are making some headway," while also noting the persistence of the Taliban resistance. ISAF's Joint Command's latest update claims that the Operation has made significant headway in creating security for future development and better governance -- two key aims of the offensive.
11:55 AM ET -- U.S. casualties in Afghanistan NOT at 1,000. A number of media outlets have picked up on the fact that iCasualties.org, an independent website that tracks US troop casualties, is reporting that the death toll for American soldiers in Afghanistan has reached 1,000.
However this figure, which iCasualties itself discloses, is somewhat misleading, were it to be understood as representing U.S. troops killed fighting in Afghanistan. In fact, the current count of 1,002 refers to casualties sustained in the entire area covered by "Operation Enduring Freedom." This includes, iCasualties explains, "fatalities that occurred in Guantanamo Bay (Cuba), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Yemen." This number currently accounts for 75 of the 1,002 fatalities listed in their count.
The number of U.S. fatalities sustained only in Afghanistan and surrounding areas such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan is therefore 927. We are inclined to consider the latter figure a more accurate representation of troops death in the U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
10:40 AM -- "Behind Taliban Lines." Tonight on FRONTLINE, PBS will air a documentary in which Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi interviews and films an insurgent cell in northern Afghanistan. The doc, called "Behind Taliban Lines," follows extremist militants from Hezb-i-Islami, a group with extensive links to both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, as they attempt to sabotage coalition supply routes. Show airs at 9pm (EST). Here's a preview:
9:05 AM ET -- McChrystal apologizes for civilian deaths. Following yesterday's reports that 27 Afghan civilians were killed in a NATO airstrike, Gen. Stanley McChrystal went on television to apologize directly for the loss of life. The AP described McChrystal's response as "an extraordinary attempt to regain Afghans' trust."
Sunday's attack by NATO jets on a convoy of cars was the deadliest attack on civilians in six months and prompted a sharp rebuke from the Afghan government. McChrystal apologized directly to President Hamid Karzai shortly after the incident. The video is another sign of the military coalition's intense campaign to win public backing for the Marjah offensive with a strategy that involves taking all precautions possible to protect civilians.
Here is the video of McChrystal's apology, which was translated into Dari and Pashto and broadcast on Afghan TV.
FULL TEXT, as delivered in English:
The Great People of Afghanistan, Salam Alaikum. Sunday morning, the International Security Assistance Force, while conducting a mission with Afghan Security Forces, launched an attack against what we believed to be a group of insurgents in Kotal Chawzar, in Southern Afghanistan. We now believe the attack killed and injured a number of Afghan citizens. I have spoken with President Karzai and apologized to him and the Afghan people. I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again. We are extremely saddened by this tragic loss of innocent lives. I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people. I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.
9:00 AM ET -- Another Taliban leader captured. AP, citing articles in the Times and Post, reports that a fourth senior Taliban leader was captured in recent week by Pakistan security forces. The Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Kabir, was described as member of the militia's ruling council and said to have been picked up a few days ago in Nowshera district of Pakistan.