NATO forces captured two key insurgent leaders in Afghanistan, while a service member was killed in a deadly bombing that raised to three the number of coalition troops killed since the new year began, the multinational alliance said Sunday.
The NATO fatalities — all in the Taliban's traditional southern stronghold — opened 2011 on a grim note for the international coalition. One of the two service members killed Saturday was identified as British by that country's defense ministry.
NATO officials say they are making significant progress in the war, but also note that the gains are reversible. Insurgents are using Pakistan as a base for some of their operations and the government of President Hamid Karzai is widely seen by many Afghans and international observers as so far unable to offer key services to a population struggling for a sense of normalcy after years of war.
The coalition, however, has stepped up efforts to quell the insurgency — issuing daily announcements of Taliban leaders or their aides captured or killed by NATO and Afghan troops. The efforts are as much aimed at undercutting the insurgency as they are at forcing the Taliban to consider the option of peace — an effort promoted by Karzai but which has yet to yield any tangible results.
A delegation from the Afghan High Peace Council, set up last October by Karzai, is slated to travel to Pakistan to discuss its efforts and to initiate talks with the Taliban, said Ataullah Ludin, deputy chairman of the 70-member peace council. The council, which is headed by former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, has so far made little headway in bringing the Taliban to the peace table.
As those efforts proceed, NATO presses ahead with its military operations.
The coalition said a senior Taliban leader who was directly involved in a Dec. 18 suicide car bombing in the southern city of Kandahar was captured on Saturday. That attack, which targeted a district chief, killed two passers-by and wounded at least nine others. The coalition did not provide other details about the Taliban leader.
In Khost province along the Pakistan border in the east, NATO said it had arrested an insurgent leader in the feared Haqqani network — al-Qaida-linked militants who operate out of Pakistan and launch attacks in eastern Afghanistan. That coalition said the operative was responsible for coordinating attacks against coalition forces.
On Saturday, NATO announced the arrest of another Haqqani network leader in the same province.
Separately, the multinational force identified a Taliban leader it said was killed in a Dec. 30 operation in the northern province of Kunduz. NATO said Bahadur served as the deputy "shadow governor" for the province and that he provided financial and logistical aid to Taliban leaders and fighters in Kunduz.
Provincial officials had earlier identified the man as Maulvi Bahadur, and said he was the Taliban's acting shadow governor for the province for several months. The Taliban have set up so-called shadow governors in many provinces, claiming to be the legitimate authority in the area.
"The death of Bahadur is a direct blow to the Taliban insurgency, eliminating a key planner and enabler of operations against innocent Afghan people," said Lt. Col. Patrick Hynes, the director of NATO's joint operations command center.
NATO also confirmed the death and identity of another Taliban leader in Kunduz. It said coalition forces killed Abdul Hai on Dec. 31. Officials had previously disclosed the operation, but it had been unclear if the Taliban leader had been among those killed.
Fighting has intensified in Afghanistan's north, once viewed as a relatively safe region, as the Taliban expand from their traditional southern strongholds and launch operations elsewhere in the country.
That has contributed to a surge in NATO troop fatalities, with a record 702 of the coalition's service members killed in 2010.
But Afghan police and the military have also shouldered a heavy toll. Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said that a total of 1,292 members of the police force were killed last year. Roughly 2,500 other members of the police force were wounded in 2010, Zemeri Bashary, the ministry's spokesman said.
Separately, Zelmai Ayubi, the spokesman for the governor of the southern Kandahar province, said two insurgents were killed in a NATO airstrike in the province's Zhari district late Saturday night.
Insurgents in the area recently lobbed two hand grenades into homes, killing a child and wounding six civilians.
In other operations, NATO said coalition and Afghan forces captured a Taliban insurgent who provided the material used in the Dec. 5 bombing of a NATO base in Khost province. In addition, it identified two other insurgents who were killed in Dec. 30 operation in the central province of Wardak. One of the men, Iqbal Jan, was a Taliban logistics officer who reports to the deputy shadow governor for the province, NATO said.