U.S. forces set sights on Taliban bastion of Kandahar

By Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. forces have begun the initial phases of a political-military offensive in this Taliban bastion and hope to control the city and surrounding areas by late summer, according to senior U.S. military officials.

Officials have pressed local leaders and tribal elders over the past several weeks to begin holding shuras, or conferences, in Kandahar city and outlying districts, telling them that they must improve governance, address corruption and eject the Taliban. Otherwise, their areas will be the focus of expanding military operations scheduled to begin in June with the arrival of 10,000 new U.S. troops, the officials have said.

Among those specifically warned by U.S. military commanders is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the elected head of Kandahar's provincial council. American officials have for years accused Karzai, the unquestioned power broker in the province and brother of President Hamid Karzai, of administering a corrupt regime and protecting narcotics traffickers. He was also accused of orchestrating voter fraud in August's presidential election.

On a visit here Tuesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Kandahar the "center of gravity" for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and compared the importance of the offensive to the 2007 "surge" of U.S. troops that helped turn the tide in the Iraq war.

In interviews, senior U.S. military and civilian officials stressed the difference between the operations in Kandahar, an urban area that is the Taliban's heartland, and operations in neighboring Helmand province, where Marines have taken control of the Marja district and installed government officials appointed by the central government in Kabul.

"Marja is rural and was ungoverned," said Frank Ruggiero, the senior U.S. civilian official in southern Afghanistan. "Kandahar city is controlled by the Afghan government." But 80 percent of the Zhari district to the west is controlled by the Taliban, as is 40 percent of the Panjwayi district, to the southwest. There are scattered insurgent operations in the Arghandab district to the northwest, Ruggiero and other officials said.

Together, the three districts and the city proper have a population of 2 million, making Kandahar Afghanistan's second-largest population center, after Kabul.

U.S. officials, including President Obama during a surprise visit last weekend, have pressed the Afghan president to take long-promised action against his brother and other allegedly corrupt officials. But they acknowledge that their limited knowledge of tribal politics here, the power wielded by Ahmed Wali Karzai and a few others and President Karzai's reluctance to act have made it an uphill battle.

Senior administration officials in Washington said overall transition to stability and vastly improved governance in Kandahar must be completed by December, when Obama has asked Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, for an overall review of how the new strategy he announced last fall is faring. The strategy calls for U.S. military withdrawals to begin in July 2011.

"We really don't have much time," said a senior military official on McChrystal's staff of the Kandahar operation.

The political side of the offensive began in earnest last week with a shura in Arghandab organized by the provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa. When an unrepresentative group of tribal leaders showed up, Ruggiero said, Wesa sent them home with instructions to widen the net of participation. Similar meetings are scheduled throughout the region over the next several weeks.

U.S. officials have urged President Karzai to travel here next month for a provincial shura. The pitch they have made to him, one official said, is "Mr. President, we've got to get going on Kandahar, and we need your help."

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