KABUL, Afghanistan — The current U.S.-led military operation in Helmand province is a trial run for what could be the decisive clash with the Taliban in Afghanistan this summer in the area that is its spiritual home — Kandahar.
Officials at the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force say that the focus of the coalition will shift from Helmand to Kandahar — the big prize for both the Taliban and the coalition. Kandahar city is home to around 1 million people, while Marjah, the target of the massive ongoing offensive in Helmand, is an obscure dusty town of 85,000 inhabitants that had turned into a Taliban stronghold.
A senior ISAF official, who didn't want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said: "This moves to Kandahar. That's the next main objective."
Kandahar is Afghanistan's political powerhouse. It was the seat of the former Afghan royal family and the base for Taliban founder Mullah Omar during his movement's reign from the mid-'90s to 2001. President Hamid Karzai's family also comes from Kandahar, where his controversial brother Ahmad Wali Karzai heads the provincial council.
The Taliban's top priority is to take Kandahar, and the ISAF has been slow to counter it up to now, fielding a severely under-manned presence that many experts believe was a strategic mistake.
"Kandahar means Afghanistan. If we have a peaceful Kandahar, we will have a peaceful Afghanistan," Tooryalai Wesa, governor of Kandahar province, said in an interview. "The history and politics of Afghanistan is always determined from Kandahar."
Yet until recent months, a combat force of only 1,000 Canadian troops was in place to defend Kandahar. That allowed the Taliban to control large parts of the province and reach into the provincial capital with a step-by-step plan to capture Kandahar city. Districts around Kandahar, including Zhari and Panjwai, also have a strong Taliban presence, with their shadow courts and other extremist institutions.
The troop deployment in Kandahar is being ramped up rapidly and should reach some 6,000 this spring. Thousands more likely would be deployed to begin a major offensive in the province in early summer.
Coalition officers describe the Marjah operation, now into its second week, as a "confidence builder" for Kandahar now that extra troops for Afghanistan have been committed.
General David Petraeus, who heads the Army's Central Command and oversees U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that the Marjah campaign is only "the initial salvo" in a larger 12-18 month offensive that aims to drive out the Taliban and "clear, hold and build" stability in those areas.
There are 15,000 troops involved in the Marjah offensive, the largest of the war. Captain Scott Costen, a spokesman for the ISAF's regional command in the south, confirmed that an operation for Kandahar was being designed.
"The scale of what you will see in the Kandahar operation will be comparable to the scale you see in Helmand," said Costen. "We're still in the planning stages."
Some experts believe that the Kandahar offensive would need to be even bigger than the current operation in Helmand, because the Taliban is much more spread out in Kandahar and more integrated into the community. Without the big concentration of fighters in one spot, as in Marjah, the operation will have to be targeted over a much bigger area. Fighting is likely across much of the province and into militant hideouts in the neighboring province of Uruzgan.
"Kandahar (operation) is imminent," said Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament for Kandahar. "If they (ISAF) don't come to Kandahar, all the operations mean nothing. The Taliban are so proud of being from Kandahar. Once you demoralize them there, then automatically the Taliban will be compelled to reconcile."
Unlike Marjah, which was almost entirely in the hands of the Taliban, the situation in Kandahar is much more contested, with both government and insurgents present. Kandahar city is ostensibly in government hands, but the Taliban run a campaign of assassination and intimidation there and periodically stage attacks.
"We're not going to see a Marjah-style operation in Kandahar because it's much more ambiguous. Kandahar city in particular is complex. I get the sense that (ISAF) commanders aren't really sure what they should do there," said Carl Forsberg, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War who specializes in Kandahar.
Forsberg said that NATO chose not to give precedence to Kandahar over Helmand, perhaps because of Helmand's dominant role in the drug trade.
In districts around the city, a particularly violent group of young Taliban commanders terrorize locals, including the 23-year shadow district governor of Zhari, Mullah Esmat, also known as Mullah Zerghai, and the 22-year-old-year shadow district police chief of Zhari, Mullah Gul Mohammad.
"The younger generation (of Taliban) are very ruthless people," said Hajji Mohammad Khan, a tribal elder from Zhari district. "The Americans don't recognize them. They just stand there when the Americans pass."
The Marjah operation, now in its second week, claimed its thirteenth ISAF casualty on Sunday. The main points of the town are under the control of NATO and Afghan troops. ISAF said Sunday that there was "determined resistance" in some areas and the operation would take at least 30 days to complete. On Saturday, President Karzai warned that NATO must do more to protect civilians there.
(David Goldstein contributed to this story from Washington.)