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Afghanistan war: Kandahar offensive is now in the slow lane

US officials say key military operations in the Kandahar offensive - scheduled for this summer - will be delayed until the fall. The Taliban have taken the Afghanistan war to the streets of the southern Afghan city with a campaign to assassinate key public officials.

By Dion Nissenbaum and Jonathan S. LandayMcClatchy Newspapers / May 17, 2010

US Army Spc. George Kaiser, left, patrolling with 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade greets some Afghan men who were sifting through their mulberry harvest Sunday, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

Julie Jacobson/AP


Kandahar, Afghanistan

Although it's just beginning, the U.S.-led effort to pacify Kandahar – the Taliban's spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan – already appears to be faltering.

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Key military operations have been delayed until the fall, efforts to improve local government are having little impact, and a Taliban assassination campaign has brought a sense of dread to Kandahar's dusty streets.

NATO officials once spoke of demonstrating major progress by mid-August, but U.S. commanders now say the turning point may not be reached until November, and perhaps later.

At the urging of Afghan leaders, U.S. officials have stopped describing the plan as a military operation. Instead, they've dubbed it "Cooperation for Kandahar," a moniker meant to focus attention on efforts to build up local governance while reducing fears of street battles.

"We're not using the term 'operation' or 'major operations' because that often brings to mind in peoples' psyche the idea of a D-Day and an H-Hour and an attack," U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan, said Thursday in Washington.

This is not Fallujah

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed him. "This is not Fallujah," Clinton told reporters, in a reference to the house-to-house fighting that drove Sunni Muslim insurgents from the Iraqi town of Fallujah. "Lessons have been learned since Iraq. A lot of lessons."

McChrystal emphasized winning over the local population.

"It's important that we engage the population so that we shape the leaders, the natural leaders, the elders, political and economic leaders so that their participation helps shape how we go forward," he said.

American and Afghan officials, however, so far have made little headway in building a foundation for a respected local government capable of winning the confidence of the nearly 1 million Afghans who live in and around Kandahar.

The problem: Karzai's brother

The largest impediment remains President Hamid Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

A controversial kingpin and reputed drug smuggler who reportedly has been paid by the CIA, he wields virtually unchecked power over the region as the chairman of the provincial council as well as through local militias, security firms awarded lucrative contracts by the U.S.-led international force and an alliance with a small band of powerful tribal leaders.

Karzai denies any wrongdoing, and U.S. officials say they've been unable to uncover incriminating information on him.

Many U.S. defense officials and analysts are concerned that continuing to work with Ahmed Wali Karzai could jeopardize the public support that McChrystal concedes is vital to his plan's success.