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Want to know how the war in Afghanistan is going? Watch Kandahar.

Progress on firming up security in Afghanistan depends on how US and Afghan troops secure Kandahar province – the nucleus of Taliban resistance.

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After insurgents were forced out, security checkpoints were set up throughout Malajat. US and Afghan forces now conduct routine patrols each day. Around the city, coalition forces have constructed what Hodges called a “security ring” of checkpoints and police stations meant to emphasize NATO and Afghan security presence.

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During a tour of Kandahar City on Tuesday, Bannister says that the clear-hold-build process and the security ring are the result of the 30,000 troops added to the region by President Obama earlier this year, as well as a more aggressive campaign by coalition forces.

“This is all part of the surge philosophy,” Bannister says. “Were buying time for the Afghans to build capacity. We’ll stay until we aren’t needed, under the current strategy.”

Afghan security forces key in Kandahar, but unreliable

Despite the large coalition presence, Hodges and Bannister say they key to Kandahar City’s long-term stability is Afghan security forces. The US, the generals say, has had success working with the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), Afghanistan’s elite special police force. Together with coalition forces they have partnered successfully at checkpoints throughout Kandahar.

The Afghan National Police, however, do little to inspire confidence. Drug use and illiteracy are common in the ANP. Compelling officers to do basic police work is difficult.

“Police sit at checkpoints … but they don’t do investigative work,” Hodges says. “Police are always going to be looking over their shoulder…they’re worried about retribution.”

Similar questions surround the readiness of the Afghan National Army. Backed by the 101st Airborne Division, ANA troops have begun operations in the Arghandab, Zhari, and Panjwai areas outside of Kandahar City. Hodges says that NATO forces control 90 percent of the Arghandab Valley. According to reports, when 800 Afghan troops were told prior to their deployment that they would be fighting in Taliban strongholds, nearly one-quarter deserted. Another 150 Afghan soldiers have since disappeared.

Evidence of success elusive

“Clear-hold-build operations are notoriously hard to assess in their early stages,” says Stephen Biddle, a defense expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Finer-grained observations are needed to make good early judgments. … That kind of information is always in short supply.”

While Kandahar City appeared calm Tuesday, evidence that combat was continuing nearby was easy to spot. Explosions rang in the distance, across the Arghandab valley Tuesday evening. Hodges then pointed out columns of smoke. The explosions, he says, were caused by mortar fire.