The United States expects heavy fighting around the key Afghan city of Kandahar through this fall, one Pentagon official said Wednesday, dimming hopes for big gains in the war ahead of U.S. elections and a White House review of its war strategy.
Several NATO nations are also taking stock of their military commitments in Afghanistan, and the course of the war will be a major topic for leaders of the alliance at a summit in October.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the U.S. and its partners must show gains by year's end or risk losing public support at home.
Military leaders are increasingly suggesting that despite the imperative for progress, the American public should not expect fast results.
Gen. David Petraeus, on the job as war commander for only a few weeks, will begin arguing publicly this weekend for patience and flexibility. Petraeus will do a round of television interviews partly intended to reassure Americans that the war is worth fighting, and to argue that President Barack Obama's redrawn strategy is only beginning to take root.
Petraeus is not expected to ask for more troops, knowing there is little stomach for that in Washington, but he has begun a quiet campaign for more time.
Petraeus took the job from cashiered Gen. Stanley McChrystal with the understanding that some U.S. forces will come home next summer, as Obama has promised. Still, Petraeus, Gates and others are preparing the public for a small withdrawal at first.
Although Gates had predicted in June that Afghan forces could take control of security in some areas by the end of this year, diplomats in the U.S. and Europe say the first handover may not occur until early next year.
A NATO conference in Lisbon in October would decide which areas would be handed over first.
Kandahar was supposed to be a feather in the U.S. cap this year, with a military and civilian drive planned for early June that was expected to show results by the fall.
That schedule slipped, in part because of resistance among Kandahar's residents. Now the U.S. strategy calls for essentially the same campaign to play out on a longer timeline.
Kandahar is considered a make-or-break test of the allied war strategy, which calls for protecting major population centers and building support for the Afghan central government.
The military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to outline coming operations, said commanders expect prolonged fighting in several volatile districts surrounding Kandahar.
An Afghan battalion will do what the military calls "clearing" operations alongside U.S. and some Canadian forces ringing the city, the official said. That means chasing insurgents out of populated areas, fighting those that remain and closing down sources of insurgent weapons or supplies.
Special operations forces, many with a mandate to hunt and kill specific insurgents, will play a major role, the official said.
Inside the city, a gradual increase of Afghan police will be coupled with expansion of electricity, the official said.
Lack of electrical power is one of Afghans' chief complaints against the central government in Kabul, so U.S. counterinsurgency specialists plan to deploy generators and beef up the power grid as a demonstration of good will. Long-term improvement of electrical service would take new hydroelectric or other generating projects, which could take years.
The U.S. military official said commanders see small signs that support for the counterinsurgency campaign is growing among residents of the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan.
An independent survey of 552 men in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in June found that a majority said the coalition is winning the war. Nearly three-quarters said they wanted their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban.
But the survey by the International Council on Security and Development also found deep resentment and mistrust of the international presence in Afghanistan.
Three-quarters of those interviewed said foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions and that working with foreign forces is wrong.
A large majority — 70 percent — said recent military actions in their area were bad for the Afghan people, and 59 percent opposed further operations in Kandahar.
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