After a relentless series of "decapitation strikes" coalition sources say they have captured or killed almost the entire leadership of the Taliban that confronted NATO a year ago. The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, however, still remains at large.
"The Taliban's command and control, as it was, has effectively been liquidated in south Afghanistan," said one senior NATO official. "The acid test is whether this will prove a strategic turning point, or whether a new leadership will emerge that is less controlled but more deadly."
There are already signs that the decapitation campaign is having an effect. One NATO commander said many local Taliban commanders were "getting a real sense that their death is near."
While many in the coalition say they believe a strategy of reconciliation – bringing low-level Taliban commanders over to the Government side – may ultimately be the key to ending the insurgency, few doubt that the threat of elimination will be an important incentive to persuade fighters to put down their weapons.
In the most recent success, British forces confirmed reports swirling around Pakistan's northwest frontier that Mullah Abdul Rahim Akhund, the Taliban shadow governor of Afghanistan's most volatile province and opium capital, Helmand, and the number three in the entire organization, surrendered to the Pakistani forces close to the border last Saturday. Though his death and capture have been proclaimed at least twice before now it seems one of America and Britain's most deadly foes in Afghanistan is truly at last off the battlefield.
The capture of Abdul Rahim marks the end of an intensive manhunt by US and British Special Forces that has lasted more than two years.
According to Afghan intel, Abdul Rahim was behind attacks on American, British and other NATO troops, the arbitrary execution of accused coalition spies, the destruction of health clinics and schools and a campaign of intimidation against anyone involved with the Afghan government or reconstruction.
Abdul Rahim was also a deft propagandist and made frequent calls to the media, always from a different mobile phone. One Afghan tribal leader also confirmed that Rahim had called him and helped devise a scheme to generate media publicity after a strike on a Taliban target also caused civilian casualties.
The destruction of the Taliban's high-level command began in December 2006 with the death of Mullah Akhtar Usmani, who was killed in a coalition strike in Helmand. A former Taliban corps commander in Kandahar, Usmani had been considered a potential successor for Mullah Omar.
It was Usmani whom former CIA operative Robert Grenier met with shortly after 9/11 to deliver America's last-chance offer to the Taliban to deliver Osama bin Laden or face the consequences, according to former CIA Chief George Tenet in his book "At the Center of the Storm".
Then in May last year a special forces raid in Helmand killed the next most important associate of Mullah Omar and the Taliban's alleged chief strategist, Mullah Dadullah. A Kakar tribesman who lost a leg in combat, Dadullah became known as the "al Zarqawi of Afghanistan" after ruthless execution of hostages and ex-spies. He was credited with the introduction of suicide bombers into the country. Dadullah's body was displayed to reporters by the Governor of Kandahar.