Good news from Kandahar

Thursday, October 28, 2010; A18

MUCH OF the news from Afghanistan this year has been discouraging, both on and off the battlefield. So it has been a pleasant surprise to see multiple Western news reports use words such as "rout" to describe recent coalition operations against the Taliban outside the southern city of Kandahar. "The American military has forced insurgents to retreat from key parts of this strategically vital region," The Post's Joshua Partlow and Karin Brulliard reported Tuesday. That hardly means that the war has been won. But combined with other developments over the past several months, it's a positive step.

The arrival of the last U.S. reinforcements authorized by President Obama permitted the deployment of a force of 12,000 NATO troops to Kandahar and its surrounding districts, which are the Taliban's heartland. With the collaboration of large and relatively effective Afghan forces, which often took the lead, the Taliban was pushed out with surprising speed. Many insurgent commanders are reported to have retreated across the border to Pakistan.

The offensive has been accompanied by other aggressive operations around the country. U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus has stepped up Special Forces operations against Taliban field commanders, 293 of whom have been reported as captured or killed in the past three months. Air operations have grown 50 percent; drone attacks against Taliban bases in Pakistan have also increased significantly.

No one believes the war can be won by such measures alone. Outside the purely military sphere, some chronic problems persist: U.S. relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai are still fraught, and the Pakistani military still resists taking action against Taliban havens. U.S. commanders say that unless they can tackle corruption and predatory behavior by local police and officials - something they are only beginning to do - it will be impossible to persuade the Afghan population to support the government.

There nevertheless appears to be evidence to suggest that the Afghan surge ordered by Mr. Obama is beginning to succeed in its first aim, which is to break the Taliban's military momentum. The challenge in the coming months will be to hold the newly captured territory in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province, secure the highway connecting the two areas, and launch development and anti-corruption projects to win over a wary population. Those are big challenges, but NATO and Afghan forces now have some success to build on.

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