When Afghan President Hamid Karzai stepped onto the stage of a basement assembly hall here today, American officials hoped he would take on a role they say he has never embraced: a wartime commander-in-chief who rallies his country.
At stake was momentum for the largest and most important campaign of the war, an attempt to clear Kandahar province of insurgents and facilitate local governance.
American officials and the 300 Afghan community leaders in the audience gave Karzai mixed reviews. But he at least fulfilled American military commanders' primary wish: He strongly told Kandahar's leaders to support the campaign, and he presented it as a slow buildup focused as much on police, government and corruption as on infantry operations.
"There will be a cleanup operation and it will start from the city and will go to the districts, and I want your cooperation," Karzai said, pointing his finger at the tribal and village elders sitting cross-legged on Afghan carpets. "I won't accept any excuses. You have to be brave."
At one point he walked out from behind the podium and asked the crowd to "stand with me with confidence. Do you stand with me?"
Dozens stood up, promising their support.
In many ways Operation Hamkari Baraye Kandahar -- "Cooperation for Kandahar" -- has already begun; thousands of additional American troops are already fighting on the outskirts of Kandahar City. But their most aggressive operations and a surge of troops into the city itself have not yet occurred. American officials took Karzai's speech and the reaction in the room as a green light.
"He said it wouldn't be easy. And he asked a lot of the people. He looked at the people, and he asked them if they were willing to sacrifice and had the strength to do this. And they came back with a strong resounding indication that they were," an upbeat Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who accompanied Karzai down to Kandahar, told a small group of reporters after the speech. "As we move to expand security here, it's really the partnership of the people and the improvement of governance that ... makes it all achievable."
Afghan officials struck a similar, positive chord. Yesterday they briefed Karzai on the campaign, basing their information on what American officials had laid out in dozens of prior meetings. The U.S. strategy of information sharing before a campaign is a new one; for years American officials launched military operations without Afghan approval or even, in certain cases, prior warning.
But in the last year American officials have gone out of their way to push the perception that the Afghan government is in the lead, and they have briefed Afghan officials and sought public support before major campaigns.
In this case, that has led to Afghan and American officials echoing each other's messages.
"This was the top layer of people of Kandahar province. So they support it. And they support the president. And they support the military operation, the way that the president described it," said Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother and the chairman of the Kandahar provincial council.
Still, in half-dozen interviews conducted after Karzai's speech, it is clear there are many doubts among Kandahar's leaders.