Preparations have begun for a crucial campaign to assert Afghan government control over Kandahar, spiritual home of the Taliban, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said Monday.
The NATO-led force is growing in districts surrounding the city of Kandahar that are under the Taliban thumb as part of a gradual increase in pressure ahead of an eventual military operation, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said.
"There won't be a D-Day that is climactic," he said.
The general spoke after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan to check on the progress of the war's expansion directed late last year by President Barack Obama.
The 30,000 additional U.S. forces Obama ordered are now arriving and most will be in place by summer. Without being specific, McChrystal suggested that any heavy fighting in Kandahar will wait until more U.S. and NATO troops are ready.
The fighting, when it comes, will not resemble the recent successful operation to retake the area around Marjah, also in southern Afghanistan.
"Kandahar is much larger, much more complex," McChrystal told reporters.
The large city is the spiritual home of the Taliban insurgency and while the city is not now under the Taliban flag the insurgents are a constant, entrenched presence in and around Kandahar.
While the military operation will be different than Marjah, the smaller operation is a template for the inclusion of local Afghan leaders and civilians, said Mark Sedwill, the new senior civilian representative serving alongside McChrystal.
"Just as in Marjah, what we need to do is bring the local people into both having a sense of ownership of the government agenda, but also having some control and influence over it," he said.
Gates said the offensive launched last month is encouraging, but he stopped short of saying the success in Marjah suggests that the war is at a turning point. The Marjah campaign routed most Taliban fighters from a town they once controlled, without a high casualty toll for U.S. troops and the Afghan security forces fighting alongside them.
Despite what he called positive signs, Gates cautioned against optimism.
"People still need to understand there is some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead," Gates told reporters traveling with him for the unannounced visit.
During his visit, Gates is meeting with his top military commanders and senior Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai.
McChrystal told reporters the campaign around Marjah could have gone quicker, but the cost in civilian casualties would have been unacceptable.
The campaign, he said, could been over in one night. Instead active military operations to rout the Taliban took about three weeks.
The military counts 19 Afghan civilian deaths from errant combat action during the Marjah campaign.
McChrystal said that would been a lot higher without the deliberately slow pace, and without significant local backing for the operation.
The Afghan war is now in its ninth year and unpopular with a majority of Americans. The challenge for the Obama administration is to demonstrate clear progress against the entrenched Taliban insurgency this year, when the number of U.S. forces in the country will reach roughly 100,000 — nearly triple the size of the force when Obama took office.
Karzai has invited Taliban participation in a spring peace conference, but U.S. officials have suggested that it is too soon to hold such a session.
The United States supports reconciliation efforts with the Taliban under certain conditions, but Gates and others have said that effort is only likely to succeed when the Taliban have been battered militarily and see that they are losing support from ordinary Afghans.
Meanwhile, Iran is "playing a double game" in Afghanistan, trying to woo the Afghan government and undermining U.S. and NATO efforts by helping the Taliban, Gates said. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also visiting Afghanistan this week.
Gates had an unusually provocative warning for Tehran should it carry efforts to help the Taliban too far.
"They also understand that our reaction, should they get too aggressive in this, is not one they would want to think about."
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell later said Gates was referring only to actions the United States might take inside Afghanistan and not to a wider confrontation with Iran.
The Marjah offensive is the largest combined operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban regime. The offensive in the southern Afghan town of 80,000 is also a precursor to a larger operation planned for later this year in Kandahar.
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