The battle against the Taliban intensified recently when NATO and Afghan forces launched the largest offensive since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan more than eight years ago. Fifteen thousand NATO and Afghan troops laid siege to the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The center of Helmand province's opium-poppy trade, a major source of Taliban funds, Marjah had long been a no-go area for NATO troops. At the same time, in the Pakistani port of Karachi, a raid on a seminary by CIA and Pakistani intelligence agents netted Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's military commander and a confidant of Mullah Omar, the movement's elusive leader.
Both the Marjah offensive and the capture of Baradar are blows to the Taliban. In Marjah, dozens of Taliban fighters stayed to slug it out after seeding roads and fields with explosive devices, but most fled the area ahead of the long-trumpeted U.S.-led offensive. The Obama Administration has described the operation as a critical step toward lasting stability, but there's a high risk that the Taliban will melt back into Marjah once the NATO juggernaut pulls out and the area is turned over to Afghan administrators and security forces. Holding this ground will be the first true test for the newly minted Afghan army. A strong national army and police force are the linchpins of the Obama Administration's Afghanistan strategy, but until now, their efficacy and loyalty to President Hamid Karzai's government have been doubtful.
While the true strategic import of the Marjah offensive may take months to determine, Baradar's capture is hugely and immediately significant. Baradar, an Afghan, was the head of the Taliban's military council and the mastermind of the insurgents' bloody and relentless campaign against NATO and Afghan forces. A trusted friend of Omar's, Baradar may well know where the Taliban's spiritual leader is hiding. Pakistani intelligence and the CIA kept Baradar's capture secret for a week, giving interrogators a chance to investigate the network of contacts in his possession before the Taliban realized he had been seized.
Most important, Baradar's arrest marks a turning point in the fraught cooperation between Washington and Islamabad on counterterrorism. Until now, Pakistan was reluctant to help the U.S. hunt down the Taliban's leadership, with whom it had close ties before 9/11. But the Taliban's militancy has spawned terrorism inside Pakistan, and the country's military and political leaders may have finally realized that they cannot get rid of homegrown terrorists without cracking down on the jihadis' Afghan brethren.