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White House hails capture of Taliban leader

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House called the capture of a top Taliban military commander “a big success” on Wednesday and said commanders reported a major offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan was going well.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs speaks to the press during the daily briefing in Washington, January 20, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files

“This was the number two Afghan Taliban operational, the operational chief. And it’s a big success for our mutual efforts in the region,” spokesman Robert Gibbs said, breaking the White House’s silence on the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Pakistan this month.

“I don’t want to get into operationally what might or might not come next, but obviously the capture of Mullah Baradar is, is a significant, a significant win,” Gibbs said at his daily news briefing.

Baradar, the most senior Taliban commander ever arrested in Pakistan, is in Pakistani custody, and the White House knows of no plans for that to change, he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, President Barack Obama received his regular update on the situation and Afghanistan and Pakistan from his national security advisers and commanders.

NATO troops are waging their largest offensive in Afghanistan since the start of the war eight years ago, aimed at driving the Taliban from Marjah, their last big stronghold in the violent southern Helmand Province, to make way for Afghan authorities to take it over.

“The response that we got from General (Stanley) McChrystal today was that the operation was going well,” Gibbs said.

McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, “believed the operation was going well because of the time ... that had been taken to shape it with local authorities,” Gibbs said.

“It’s clear that a lot of individuals with the Taliban decided they did not want to stay in this stronghold and have left,” Gibbs said.

In discussing Obama’s meeting with his war council, Gibbs stressed U.S. cooperation with Pakistan and the involvement of Afghan security forces in the Helmand offensive.

The assault tests Obama’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to seize insurgent-held areas and shift control to local authorities before the United States begins to bring its troops out of Afghanistan in 2011.

The arrest of Baradar followed months of behind-the-scenes prodding by U.S. officials who saw inaction by Islamabad as a major threat to their Afghan war strategy. Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government has vowed to eradicate Islamist militancy.

“One of the updates that the president got today was a discussion about our military cooperation with Pakistan, and the recognition on the Pakistani military side that extremists in their country posed not simply a threat to us, but an existential threat to them,” Gibbs said.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Editing by Philip Barbara