By Anne E. Kornblut and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A08
Even as Marines in Afghanistan continued to fight for control of the Taliban stronghold of Marja, senior Obama administration officials said Friday that the United States has begun initial planning for a bigger, more complex offensive in Kandahar later this year.
The assault on Marja, the largest U.S.-NATO military operation since 2001, is a "prelude to larger, more comprehensive operations," senior Obama officials said Friday. Administration officials declined to say when the Kandahar offensive will begin, but military officials have said that it probably will kick off in late spring or early summer after additional U.S. forces have moved into the area.
"Bringing comprehensive population security to Kandahar City is really the centerpiece of operations this year, and, therefore, Marja is the prelude. It's sort of a preparatory action," said one senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials telegraphed the Marja offensive for many weeks before it began, and they appear to be laying the same kind of groundwork before moving into Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city and the original base of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. The drives into Marja and Kandahar come as part of the administration's decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops in the country, a final push to secure major population centers almost nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Any military operation to drive the Taliban from Kandahar will probably play out very differently than the battle taking place in Marja, which is a tenth the size. About 11,000 U.S. and Afghan troops pushed into Marja and within the first 13 days of the operation raised the Afghan flag over the district's government center. Afghan officials also quickly selected a new district governor to oversee reconstruction efforts.
In Kandahar, U.S. forces are unlikely to move into the city in large numbers and instead will probably attempt to drive Taliban fighters from towns and villages surrounding the main city, military officials said. Local politics in Kandahar, where the Taliban movement first secured its foothold in Afghanistan, are also far more tangled than in Marja.
The success or failure of U.S. operations in Kandahar will probably dominate the administration's next review of war policy in December. In the interim, President Obama is conducting monthly video conferences with leaders on the ground and receiving lengthy written assessments.
Briefing reporters at the White House, officials described the Marja effort in cautiously optimistic terms, saying it is "well into" the first phase of clearing the Taliban out of the city and that "pockets of resistance" remain. The real test in the area will be whether the United States can help the Afghan government jump-start reconstruction projects and build a non-corrupt government in an area that has in recent years been dominated by the opium trade.
"We don't from the outset enjoy the trust of the people," the administration official said. "We have to win that trust."
Beyond southern Afghanistan, U.S. officials have reported greater success in recent days in capturing and killing senior Taliban officials, aided by increased cooperation from the Pakistani government.
In addition to those arrests, the administration has relied on strikes from Predator unmanned aircraft to kill Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan -- though it has not publicly confirmed them. In Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has put strict limits on the use of airstrikes to minimize civilian casualties that might drive the locals to support the Taliban.
Because U.S. forces don't have a presence on the ground in the Pakistani border region where most of the Predator attacks occur, it is difficult to gauge the number of civilian deaths caused by the strikes. The senior administration official said that the strikes produced few civilian casualties. "If there are Predator operations in Pakistan," the official said, "I would argue that the collateral damage is negligible at most, and that the reports of intensified damage are a myth, and that the Pakistanis would recognize how negligible they are and are very pleased with that precision that is taking place, which then encourages them to allow said Predator operations, if they existed, to continue with even greater momentum and pace."