U.S. to launch operation in Kandahar city - official
By Ross Colvin and Sue PlemingWASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan will launch a new military operation later this year to get full control of Kandahar, the former "capital city" of the Taliban, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.
"If our overall goal for 2010 in Afghanistan is to reverse the momentum (of the Taliban) ... then we think we've got to get to Kandahar this year," said the senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Militants have over the past year made startling gains in the area around Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement. Reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar ruled Afghanistan from there before U.S.-led forces invaded in 2001.
McChrystal described the city in his assessment of the war last August as the "key geographic objective" of the Quetta Shura Taliban, the main faction led by Mullah Omar.
The U.S. official was offering an assessment of the offensive in Marjah, which the administration views as key preparation for the potentially bigger battle of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.
TEST CASE FOR BIG PRIZE
Marjah is one of the biggest operations in the more than eight-year-old Afghan war. It is also an early test of President Barack Obama's plan to add 30,000 more troops to win control of Taliban strongholds and eventually transfer them to Afghan authority.
"The way to look at Marjah is that it is the tactical prelude to larger more comprehensive operations later this year in Kandahar city," the administration official said.
"Bringing comprehensive population security to Kandahar city is really the centerpiece of operations this year and therefore Marjah is the prelude," he said.
The British commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan said last week that NATO forces would sweep toward Kandahar over the next six months.
On Thursday, Afghan authorities raised the Afghan flag over Marjah to signify the handover of control to the government from NATO troops led by U.S. Marines.
The official said military commanders on the ground believed it would take several weeks yet to clear the remaining pockets of resistance in and around Marjah.
"We are somewhere between clear and hold and that is pretty much on track. What is going to be more challenging than the clearing process will be the building process," he said.
He acknowledged U.S. and Afghan security forces would not initially have the trust of Marjah's residents.
"It is not so much a matter of a physical contest about who controls the weapons, it's a question of who controls the confidence of the people. That will only come after we are able to deliver," he said.
Washington hopes its latest offensive will decisively turn the momentum in a war that commanders say has been going the way of the Taliban.
Under Obama's new strategy, NATO and Afghan security forces are to secure population centers across Afghanistan so that the government can move in.