Special ops shaping the battle space around Kandahar

NY Times:

Small bands of elite American Special Operations forces have been operating with increased intensity for several weeks in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city, picking up or picking off insurgent leaders to weaken the Taliban in advance of major operations, senior administration and military officials say.

The looming battle for the spiritual home of the Taliban is shaping up as the pivotal test of President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, including how much the United States can count on the country’s leaders and military for support, and whether a possible increase in civilian casualties from heavy fighting will compromise a strategy that depends on winning over the Afghan people.

It will follow a first offensive, into the hamlet of Marja, that is showing mixed results. And it will require the United States and its Afghan partners to navigate a battleground that is not only much bigger than Marja but also militarily, politically and culturally more complex.

Two months after the Marja offensive, Afghan officials acknowledge that the Taliban have in some ways retaken the momentum there, including killing or beating locals allied with the central government and its American backers. “We are still waiting to see the outcome in Marja,” said Shaida Abdali, the deputy Afghan national security adviser. “If you are planning for operations in Kandahar, you must show success in Marja. You have to be able to point to something. Now you don’t have a good example to point to there.”

The battle for Kandahar has become the make-or-break offensive of the eight-and-half-year war. The question is whether military force, softened with appeals to the local populace, can overcome a culture built on distrust of outsiders, including foreign forces and even neighboring tribes.

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The problems in Marjah reflect an inadequate defense of the people. What is needed is a nightime curfew and more effective security checkpoints, that can stop the Taliban movement to intimidate and harm the people. That problem will be even greater in Kandahar because of greater space to control and more people to watch over.

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