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Afghanistan's linchpin: Kandahar

Kandahar is the Taliban's stronghold and target of an allied assault in Afghanistan. Can NATO win hearts and minds as well as territory?

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Why is Kandahar so important?

Kandahar has more political and cultural significance than perhaps anywhere else in the country. For centuries, Afghanistan's rulers have hailed from this patchwork of dense greenery and barren desert. It is home to the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the country's holiest sites. It's also one of the nation's most densely populated cities.

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Kandahar was the de facto capital when the Taliban were in power, and is the insurgents' most cherished objective.

Anarchy and warlordism here quickly pushed inhabitants toward the Taliban when the movement emerged 16 years ago. Following 2001, marginalization of the villagers in Panjwaii, Zhari, and Arghandab districts by the ruling Zirak Durrani tribes fed the movement with recruits and leaders and contributed to the violence and lawlessness here that have undermined NATO efforts.

As US Army Brig. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges – until recently NATO's director of operations in southern Afghanistan – put it: "Kandahar City and its environs are the cultural, spiritual, historical, political, religious center of gravity for the Pashtun belt" – the swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Pashtun ethnic group, the one most closely affiliated with the insurgency, resides. That's a main part of the reason NATO commanders consider the province the linchpin to winning over the country's "hearts and minds" and ending the insurgency in Afghanistan.

The trick of the Taliban

Hamkari is one of the few operations where the coalition has the benefit of the full weight of President Obama's troop surge, which saw America deploy 30,000 extra personnel to Afghanistan – there are some 6,900 NATO troops and 5,300 Afghan troops inside Kandahar. The US and NATO have more than 150,000 troops in Afghanistan. In Hodges's words, the coalition will "never have it any better." Yet for those troops in the Horn, the hard part has only just begun. As in nearly every place NATO has rolled into in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban retaliation in the shape of a brutal intimidation campaign is a near certainty.

"The trick of the Taliban," a villager from the Horn says, is this: "They flee the fighting. Then slowly, slowly they return." Asking not to be named for fear of reprisal, he added that everyone, "everywhere" was "scared [of] targeted killing."

The one thing that is certain in the murky, indefinite war that has now enveloped the Horn, is a Taliban campaign that eschews military confrontation and terrorizes civilians, say inhabitants, tribal elders, local journalists, researchers, government officials, and NATO troops.

The point of such terrorizing? To show that NATO and the Afghan government may prevail on the battlefield, but they cannot provide the security, governance, and justice that would underpin the state's political legitimacy, observers say.

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