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 and American Collaboration Seen More Readily
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.
The very word "operation" -- which has largely been banned by McChrystal's staff -- scares many residents who imagine a dramatic, airborne invasion of Kandahar City. At the same time, some residents fear the opposite: that a rhetorical emphasis on police and governance means no military effort to defeat the Taliban.
Others simply have lost faith in the United States and the Afghan government, who have failed to realize so many Afghan hopes after eight and a half years of war.
"If President Karzai's statements were put into practice, then we would be happy," said Haji Bacha AKhundzada, who is from Kandahar City. "Every time he comes here, he always says nice things. But we never see things actually getting done."
"Adding foreign forces and more bombardments won't create peace," said Toor Jan, who is from the Arghistan district east of Kandahar City. "Russians also launched a lot of bombardments. They killed many people, and they lost in the end."
$30 Billion U.S. Surge Shows Renewed Support in Fight Against Taliban
American officials acknowledge the difficulty of convincing Kandaharis to support a massive influx of foreign troops when past campaigns have failed to deliver. American and Canadian troops have cleared much of Kandahar province in dozens of operations over the last eight years but never had enough forces to hold the areas and keep out insurgents.
The 2010 surge -- at the cost of $30 billion a year -- is designed to change that equation.
"What they have seen in the past is a lack of capacity on the part of the government and a lack of numbers on the coalition forces to achieve lasting security," McChrystal said, referring to Kandahar leaders. "They are naturally skeptical. And so I think we, together with the Afghan partners, have got to show that we can do it, and we can make it stick."
Still, last week McChrystal acknowledged that it was taking longer to gain the support of local elders than he had anticipated. American officials have delayed some of the most aggressive clearing and holding operations around the city until the fall -- partially due to a lack of support and partially due to a delay in Afghan Army forces' readiness.
Both American and Afghan officials acknowledge that support for the campaign is tempered by anxiety -- of possible civilian casualties, of Taliban retribution and of a spike in violence. They hope that, despite the likely toll the campaign will take on Kandaharis, the battle will be a decisive one for all of Afghanistan.
"This operation requires sacrifice," Karzai said. "And without sacrifice, you cannot restore peace to Kandahar."