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Capture of Taliban No. 2 bolsters US efforts in Afghanistan

The capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was reportedly picked up in Pakistan, comes amid the largest US offensive against the Taliban insurgency since 2001.

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Helmand is also home to much of Afghanistan’s poppy crop, which funds a significant percentage of the Taliban’s insurgency, and American military officers hope operations there could degrade the opium harvest, and therefore, the amount of funding for the Taliban.

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If fighters decide to lay down their arms to consider reintegration with the Afghan government, that would be a significant development, experts say. It would allow the US to clear the area without much heavy fighting, thus reinforcing a primary aspect of the new strategy: protecting the civilian population.

The US has struggled with the issue of such casualties because they undermine efforts in a counterinsurgency in which protecting the civilian population is critical. Under the new strategy, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has said US forces should use utmost caution during operations, in some cases holding their fire rather than risking killing civilians by accident. The Marjah operation already included at least one such incident, in which an errant airstrike killed 12 Afghan villagers Sunday.

So far, the US and Afghan forces have met sporadic but intense resistance since beginning the operation, dubbed Moshtarak, a Dari word for “together.”

The capture of Baradar also holds strategic significance, as it appears to mark a new era in US-Pakistani cooperation in the common fight against the Taliban. The two countries’ on-again, off-again relationship over the years has usually been marked by mistrust and sometimes cross-purposes.

While the US has pushed Pakistan to go after the Afghanistan Taliban, of which Baradar was a principle, Pakistan has been more focused on the “Pakistan Taliban,” led by the Mehsud tribe.

The long-term impact of the capture is not clear. American officials will hope to glean important information about the insurgency from Pakistan, if not the whereabouts of the Afghan Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar.

Killing or capturing top leaders of the insurgency can sometimes have only a mild effect, as top leaders are quickly replaced by lower-level insurgents. Baradar is not irreplaceable, but it will be hard to find an effective successor, says Nelson, comparing the task to that of replacing Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

“He is not just a thug,” Nelson says of Baradar. “He is pretty good at what he does.”

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