February 26, 2010
U.S. Eyes New Target: Heartland of Taliban
By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON — Even as it presses its campaign to run insurgents out of the Taliban stronghold of Marja in Afghanistan, the United States military is looking ahead toward taking the fight to Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual and political heartland, White House officials said Friday.
A senior administration official said the United States was planning a major offensive this year in Kandahar. The announcement confirms what military officials have been saying for weeks: that the Marja offensive, in which intermittent fighting continued even as the Afghan government symbolically claimed control of the city on Thursday by hoisting the Afghan flag, was a forerunner for a much bigger battle ahead.
“I think the way to look at Marja, it’s the tactical prelude to larger, more comprehensive operations later this year in Kandahar city,” the official said at a background news briefing arranged by the White House under ground rules of anonymity. “If our overall goal for 2010 is to reverse the momentum and gain time and space for the Afghan capacity, we have to get to Kandahar this year.”
The public announcement that the military intends to try to push the Taliban out of Kandahar is part of an administration approach that includes warning both residents and insurgents — sometimes months in advance — that a big force led by American troops is on its way. American, NATO and Afghan officials talked openly about the Marja offensive in advance, even going so far as to announce at a news conference in Kabul that an offensive involving thousands of troops would begin “in the near future.”
The deliberate publicizing of these offensives, administration officials said, is meant to accomplish two goals: to reduce the number of military and civilian casualties by giving insurgents the opportunity to withdraw in advance, and to reassure the local population that a return to control by the central government is looming.
For both sides, Kandahar is a much bigger prize than Marja. The city is the second largest in Afghanistan, and it is the spiritual heart and birthplace of the Taliban movement. During President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy review, White House officials outlined a plan to try to clear insurgents out of major population centers in Afghanistan; Kandahar was at the center of that plan.
As early as last August, American military officials in the Kandahar region were giving aerial tours of the area to visiting administration officials, describing the terrain as a “future kinetic area” — military jargon for a Taliban-held stronghold that the military would eventually have to enter and clear out with brute force.