U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, says his next target is Kandahar.
He declined to comment specifically on when the Kandahar offensive will begin, but said "our forces will be significantly increased around there by early summer."
"There won't be a 'D-Day' that is climactic," McChrystal said. "It will be a rising tide of security as it comes."
Karen Brulliard of the Washington Post reports that Afghan intelligence now believes that Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group, may have been behind the attack that killed more than a dozen people in Kabul on February 26.
“The Afghan Taliban asserted responsibility for the assault, which left 16 people dead, within hours of its start. But Afghan intelligence spokesman Sayed Ansari said investigators had reached a different conclusion based on evidence that the attack was carried out by a team of suicide bombers who spoke Urdu, a Pakistani language, and who were searching for Indian victims,” Brulliard reports.
Many stories about Afghanistan today and during the weekend focus on the battle in Marjah and the rebuilding effort that lies ahead.
“After the declaration this weekend that the battle for the Taliban enclave of Marja had been won, for the Marines standing behind sandbags and walking patrols, the more complicated work has begun. With it will be a test of the strategy selected by President Obama and the generals now running the Afghan war,” writes C.J. Chivers of the New York Times.
Joshua Partlow of the Washington Post reports that dangers still exist in Marjah, despite coalition and Afghan forces now largely in control of the city.
“The farmlands of Marja, once a Taliban stronghold and drug-trafficking hub, remain a treacherous place. Over the course of the two-week offensive, 5,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers have encountered hundreds of mines and homemade bombs, and the troops still plan another detailed, house-by-house clearing of the ground they've already passed through,” Partlow writes.
A key part of the coalition effort in Afghanistan is to peel away militants from the Taliban and integrate them into society through jobs and opportunities. The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow has a story on whether that strategy has a chance to work.
“Taliban leaders scoff at that notion, saying their loyalists are waging a determined holy war against the infidel armies of the West and can't be bought off,” Partlow writes.
“Interviews with [militants] who recently left the Taliban as part of an Afghan government effort to lure them from the battlefield suggest that in many cases, U.S. policymakers may be on to something.
“Several ex-fighters said they joined the Taliban not out of religious zealotry but for far more mundane reasons: anger at the government in Kabul, revenge for losing a government job, pressure from family or tribe members - or simply because they were broke.”
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, in an interview with USA Today, says that the recent arrests and killings of Taliban leaders are taking a toll on the organization.
“You see a weakening of the organization's confidence,” McChrystal told USA Today.
“McChrystal, however, cautioned that it was too early to suggest the recent successes in targeting militant leaders is ‘decisive’ because it hasn't led to a reduction in violence or fighters in Afghanistan,” writes Jim Michaels of USA Today.
"We don't see [the Taliban] collapsing," McChrystal told the paper.
An Afghan government official said a tentative agreement was reached Wednesday to transfer a detained Afghan Taliban military leader from Pakistan to Afghanistan, but Pakistan quickly denied the assertion, reports CNN’s Ben Wedeman.
An Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashari told CNN that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is to be handed over to Afghanistan as part of a prisoner swap between the two countries.
The agreement, reached in Islamabad, still needs to be reviewed by legal authorities in both countries, and once they've signed off on it, the exchange will start, Bashari said.
Baradar's presence in Afghanistan would mean U.S. authorities would have direct access to the militant, whose recent arrest in the Pakistani city of Karachi earlier this month has been seen as a major stride in the war against the Taliban.
However, Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik told CNN there is no agreement to hand over Baradar as part of a prisoner swap and Afghanistan has not made a formal request for Baradar to be extradited.
Another senior Afghan Taliban leader has been arrested in Pakistan, two Pakistani intelligence officials told CNN.
Security forces arrested Mullah Abdul Kabir last week from a religious school in the district of Nowshera, 54 miles (88 km) northwest of Islamabad, the officials said.
Mullah Kabir served on the Taliban's Council of Ministers and governed the eastern zone of Afghanistan during the Taliban rule of the 1990s, said Imtiaz Gul, head of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.
Kabir is the fourth Afghan Taliban leader to be arrested by Pakistani security forces in the past several weeks.
In a statement to CNN, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied that Mullah Kabir had been arrested.
The Netherlands' coalition government collapsed this past weekend over disagreement about its role in Afghanistan. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's office said in a statement that the Labor Party had withdrawn from the government following days of talks over whether the troops should be brought home.
Robert Marquand of the Christian Science Monitor writes that the development “threatens to undermine the NATO mission in the central Asian nation.”
“The Dutch collapse brings concern of a domino effect: Can European leaders, who have been out in front of their publics on Afghanistan, continue anteing up – or will this withdrawal further sap a flagging political will across Europe for the mission?” Marquand writes.
The New York Times reports that the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar may have been “a lucky accident.”
“When Pakistani security officers raided a house outside Karachi in late January, they had no idea that they had just made their most important capture in years,” report the Times’ Scott Shane and Eric Schmitt.
“American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications saying militants with a possible link to the Afghan Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, were meeting. Tipped off by the Americans, Pakistani counterterrorist officers took several men into custody, meeting no resistance.
“Only after a careful process of identification did Pakistani and American officials realize they had captured Mullah Baradar himself.”
Preparations are underway for the next phase of the operation in Marjah – installing an effective government - report Matthew Rosenberg and Michael M. Phillips of the Wall Street Journal.
“It's also the phase with the most uncertain prospects. The Taliban was able to easily take Marjah more than two years ago because the government's authority there was weak, and what little existed was often corrupt and predatory,” Rosenberg and Phillips write.
“’Phase 2’ is to begin in coming days when the new top administrator of the town, sub-district governor Haji Zahir, is put in place along with a team four American ‘mentors’ who work for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Frank J. Ruggiero, the senior U.S. civilian representative in southern Afghanistan.”