Coalition forces are routing the Taliban in Kandahar province, forcing its fighters to abandon bases they've held for years, Afghan officials say.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, told The Associated Press late Wednesday that he believed most of the insurgents had left before NATO and Afghan forces began an operation to wrest control of the province in July.
He said other fighters had been arrested or killed and there was not a single Taliban base left in Kandahar. That claim could not be verified, The Associated Press reported.
Karzai, who heads a provincial council in Kandahar, said government officials were moving in to set up institutions in areas cleared of Taliban by security forces.
Improving residents' quality of life is seen as crucial to winning their long-term support.
The apparent military success comes amid a new diplomatic push for peace with talks between leading Taliban figures and the Afghan government. The New York Times reported Wednesday that NATO had flown some Taliban officials to the talks, although the U.S. government has stressed it is not involved.
At a press conference in Kabul Thursday, a spokesman for Afghanistan's high peace and reconciliation committee refused to confirm or deny NATO's involvement in transporting Taliban leaders to the talks, saying any disclosure might jeopardize the process.
He also refused to comment on an unconfirmed report that Mullah Baradar, previously the Taliban's overall military commander who was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan, in February, was involved in the talks.
Meanwhile, many hardened fighters have fled strongholds held by the Taliban for years, The New York Times reported Thursday.
"We now have the initiative. We have created momentum," Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British commander of the NATO coalition forces in southern Afghanistan who has overseen the Kandahar operation for the last year, told the newspaper. "It is everything put together in terms of the effort that has gone in over the last 18 months and it is undoubtedly having an impact."
Large numbers of American and Afghan government troops have been sent to Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, in recent months.
"Afghans will tell you, if you have a peaceful Kandahar, you will have a peaceful Afghanistan," Carter told the Times.
However he added "only time will tell" as to the ultimate success of the operation, which began in August when Afghan forces began to clear Mehlajat on the southern outskirts of Kandahar city, the newspaper said.
U.S. troops then moved in from the north, into the rural district of Arghandab. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division moved into the Zhare district in the southwest, where the Times said they encountered strong resistance at first.
The Taliban had created a fortified redoubt of command posts and mined areas in an area called the horn of Panjwai over the last four years, the Times reported.
Last weekend, an airborne assault was mounted by a combined Afghan-U.S. force which the Times said had surprised the Taliban in its intensity.
The paper, citing NATO commanders, local people and the Taliban itself, said many Taliban commanders had fled to Pakistan and most of the fighters had also gone away or hidden their weapons.
New rocketLocal people said the Taliban had been shocked by the attacks and, in particular, the use of a new rocket introduced in the last two or three weeks, the Times said.
Carter told the paper this was probably a Himar or High Mobility Artillery Rocket. "They are extraordinarily precise; they are accurate to a meter," he said.
Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, the commander of Task Force 1-66 in Arghandab, told the Times that insurgent attacks had fallen from 50 a week in August to 15 a week in October, although the colder weather may be playing a part.
Lemons said he felt Taliban militants were losing heart. " A lot are getting killed," he told the Times. "They are not receiving support from the local population, they are complaining that the local people are not burying their dead, and they are saying: 'We are losing so many we want to go back home.'"
A Taliban fighter who spoke to the Times by telephone on condition that he would not be named, said the insurgents had pulled back but would try to return later.
"We are not there anymore, we are not preparing to fight a big battle, but we are waiting," he said. "We are waiting until this force has been exhausted and has done all they are supposed to do, and later on our fighters will re-enter the area."
However, a senior Afghan police officer was jubilant.
"We broke their neck," Hajji Niaz Muhammad, the police chief in the Arghandab District, told the Times. "There is no doubt they are very weak in this area now."
However, the coalition's experience in the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah offers a cautionary tale.
The southern Afghan town was seized from the Taliban eight months ago, but coalition forces are still trying to clear the town.
Years of Taliban control may have ended in Marjah, but the Taliban never left — they simply went underground, blending in among civilians, taking advantage of the region's terrain of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches to stage daily ambushes of American patrols.
The Marines have found bloody clothes and spent bullet casings and bombs meant to kill them. They've heard bullets flying overhead and seen muzzle flashes in tree lines. But finding insurgents is another story altogether.
"The only time we see them is when we're in contact" in a gunfight, Cpl. Chuck Martin, 24, of Middletown, R.I, was quoted by The Associated Press in an article Tuesday.