Afghanistan war: Marjah offensive is trial run for Kandahar push
The Marjah offensive, say US and Afghan officials, is a trial run for a major push into the city of Kandahar this summer. It could be the pivotal battle of the Afghanistan war against the Taliban.
The current U.S.-led military operation – the Marjah offensive in Helmand province – is a trial run for what could be the decisive clash with the Taliban in Afghanistan this summer in the area that is its spiritual home – Kandahar.Skip to next paragraph
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Officials at the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) say that the focus of the coalition will shift from Helmand to Kandahar — the big prize for both the Taliban and the coalition. Kandahar city is home to around 1 million people, while Marjah, the target of the massive ongoing offensive in Helmand, is an obscure dusty town of 85,000 inhabitants that had turned into a Taliban stronghold.
A senior ISAF official, who didn't want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said: "This moves to Kandahar. That's the next main objective."
Kandahar is Afghanistan's political powerhouse. It was the seat of the former Afghan royal family and the base for Taliban founder Mullah Omar during his movement's reign from the mid-'90s to 2001. President Hamid Karzai's family also comes from Kandahar, where his controversial brother Ahmad Wali Karzai heads the provincial council.
The Taliban's top priority is to take Kandahar, and the ISAF has been slow to counter it up to now, fielding a severely under-manned presence that many experts believe was a strategic mistake.
"Kandahar means Afghanistan. If we have a peaceful Kandahar, we will have a peaceful Afghanistan," Tooryalai Wesa, governor of Kandahar province, said in an interview. "The history and politics of Afghanistan is always determined from Kandahar."
NATO troops to move in this summer
Yet until recent months, a combat force of only 1,000 Canadian troops was in place to defend Kandahar. That allowed the Taliban to control large parts of the province and reach into the provincial capital with a step-by-step plan to capture Kandahar city. Districts around Kandahar, including Zhari and Panjwai, also have a strong Taliban presence, with their shadow courts and other extremist institutions.
The troop deployment in Kandahar is being ramped up rapidly and should reach some 6,000 this spring. Thousands more likely would be deployed to begin a major offensive in the province in early summer.
Coalition officers describe the Marjah operation, now into its second week, as a "confidence builder" for Kandahar now that extra troops for Afghanistan have been committed.
General David Petraeus, who heads the Army's Central Command and oversees U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that the Marjah campaign is only "the initial salvo" in a larger 12-18 month offensive that aims to drive out the Taliban and "clear, hold and build" stability in those areas.
There are 15,000 troops involved in the Marjah offensive, the largest of the war. Captain Scott Costen, a spokesman for the ISAF's regional command in the south, confirmed that an operation for Kandahar was being designed.