Battle for Kandahar, Heart of Afghanistan's Taliban Country

Since arriving in Afghanistan one year ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff have had their eye on one prize above all others: the southern province of Kandahar, the ancient fault line between civilizations where the Soviet Union lost its final battles, the Afghan Taliban was born, and where the group first reemerged after the U.S. invasion.

Over the next few months the U.S. presence in Kandahar will crescendo into Operation Hamkari Baraye Kandahar -- "Cooperation for Kandahar" -- an attempt to protect residents from insurgents and provide them with a functioning government. It will feature tens of thousands of American troops and hundreds of civilians, the single largest operation since the war began.

U.S. commanders have struggled to find a crisp description of the campaign, reaching for phrases like "a series of activities," "thickening the battlespace," "restoring order," and "a rising tide of security."

But they have agreed on its paramount importance: the campaign is aimed at the Taliban's spiritual heartland. It has no backup plan, and it must show immediate results before the White House reviews its Afghan policy in December.

"Our intent is to take away from [the Taliban] access to the population where they are traditionally strongest. And that will take away from them some of their credibility as well as recruiting, funding, access to narcotics," McChrystal told ABC News in a March interview. "It won't be decisive. But it's a pretty severe blow to them if they lose what we would consider their most important area."

Many have been more blunt. The campaign is the most significant test of the new American counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and if it fails in any way, risks further alienating a skeptical population that is desperate for security.

"We've got a few months," says one senior military official who has helped plan the campaign, "to make a giant difference."

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Geographically, the campaign will focus on three areas: the rural districts outside Kandahar City that insurgents have used as staging grounds; the circular edge of the city; and the city's heart.

In many ways, the campaign becomes increasingly challenging as it moves toward the center of the provincial capital. Unlike the Marja operation, where U.S. Marines invaded an area, cleared it of a few hundred Taliban, and set up a government and an economy largely from scratch, the U.S. Army will not roll its armored vehicles into the city of 1 million residents. That has to be left to the Afghan police, which is still struggling to find autonomy.

"The Heart of Darkness"

And the U.S. has to work with the political infrastructure that's already there, mentoring and cajoling district and provincial governments that have been ineffective, severely under-resourced, and in some cases, corrupt. Without a functioning city and provincial government, U.S. military officials admit their successes will not produce substantive improvements in Afghans' lives.

"It's all about the government, it's all about the police," says the senior military official. "This is the Afghan government's to win or lose. There's enough combat power from a military standpoint to do what we need to do."

The vast majority of that combat power will go to the districts surrounding Kandahar City. Half of "Greater Kandahar" lives in those areas, which will likely host a long, hot, violent summer.

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