KABUL, Afghanistan -- A military offensive in southern Afghanistan is chasing the Taliban out of their stronghold in Kandahar province, the Afghan president's half brother said.
"Most of them I believe left before the military operation started," Ahmed Wali Karzai told The Associated Press late Wednesday. "They are running ... I don't know (where)."
NATO and Afghan forces began an operation to wrest control of Kandahar province in July, an attempt to regain the initiative in the nine-year war by taking the battle to the heartland of the insurgency along the Pakistani border.
"Things are changing very well. There's a lot of progress in security ... Some (Taliban) were arrested. Some were killed," said Karzai. "There's no single Taliban base in Kandahar province right now."
That claim could not be immediately verified.
Karzai heads a provincial council in Kandahar and says government officials are moving in to set up institutions in areas cleared of Taliban by security forces. Improving residents' quality of life is crucial to winning long-term popular support and maintaining control of territory.
In Kandahar city, one resident said people were less afraid now to turn in information about insurgents.
"The Taliban are weak now and people are not so afraid of them, so now people can help the government," said Salam Bacha Barakzai, a 41-year-old teacher. "You can see that Taliban are being arrested everywhere. That's because the people are helping."
The operation began by setting up checkpoints in the city of Kandahar. Then extra NATO and Afghan forces, including specialized paramilitary police, flooded into the city and eventually began moving into neighboring Arghandab district to the north. The fertile valley is a breadbasket for the area. Afghan and NATO forces are now moving into the volatile districts of Zhari and Panjwai, trying to consolidate their gains.
It's been unclear over the past few months how effective the southern offensive has been. Residents have reported pockets of stability, but insurgents continue to target government officials and in Arghandab the government had difficulty setting up a civilian administration despite NATO backing.
A similar operation to the Kandahar offensive began in February in the southern, poppy-producing hub of Marjah but it has so far failed to pacify the area, in part because the military push was not backed by an effective civilian expansion.
The Afghan government is widely considered to be weak and corrupt and many people in the provinces only experience it through the country's predatory police force, notorious for drug use and bribe-taking.
As the southern offensive progressed, insurgents have increased attacks against coalition forces in the north, which was previously considered relatively stable and free from Taliban influence. Some fear they will simply bide their time and return to the south if NATO forces begin withdrawing.
The ability of NATO and Afghan forces to take and hold the southern provinces -- and the Afghan government's ability to win them over -- is a key test of U.S. President Barack Obama's decision last year to send 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan.
The "surge" is supposed to seize the initiative from a steadily growing insurgent alliance, forcing factions of the Taliban to consider peace talks and a political settlement.
In an unrelated incident, NATO said a force member was killed following an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan Thursday, bringing to 48 the number of NATO troops killed so far this month. No further details were provided about the incident.
Also in eastern Afghanistan, NATO said 17 senior insurgent fighters were captured or killed between Oct. 12 and Oct. 18.
In western Paktika province, NATO confirmed Thursday that a man killed in an overnight operation Tuesday was a leader of the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction closely tied to al-Qaida. The deputy governor of the province, Juma Mohammedi, said the man led a force of around 20 men.