- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Preparations have begun for a crucial campaign to assert Afghan government control over Kandahar, the so-called “spiritual” home of the Taliban, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said Monday.

The NATO-led force is growing in districts surrounding the city of Kandahar that are under the Taliban thumb as part of a gradual increase in pressure ahead of an eventual military operation, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said.

“There won’t be a D-Day that is climactic,” he said.

The general spoke after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Afghanistan to check on the progress of the war’s expansion directed late last year by President Obama.

The 30,000 additional U.S. forces Mr. Obama ordered are now arriving and most will be in place by summer. Without being specific, Gen. McChrystal suggested that any heavy fighting in Kandahar will wait until more U.S. and NATO troops are ready.

The fighting, when it comes, will not resemble the recent successful operation to retake the area around Marjah, also in southern Afghanistan.

“Kandahar is much larger, much more complex,” Gen. McChrystal told reporters.

The large city is the “spiritual” home of the Taliban insurgency, and while the city is not now under the Taliban flag, the insurgents are a constant, entrenched presence in and around Kandahar.

While the military operation will be different from the one in Marjah, the smaller operation is a template for the inclusion of local Afghan leaders and civilians, said Mark Sedwill, the new senior civilian representative serving alongside Gen. McChrystal.

Mr. Gates said the offensive launched last month is encouraging, but he stopped short of saying the success in Marjah suggests that the war is at a turning point. The Marjah campaign routed most Taliban fighters from a city they once controlled, without a high casualty toll for U.S. troops and the Afghan security forces fighting alongside them.

Despite what he called positive signs, Mr. Gates cautioned against optimism.

“People still need to understand there is some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead,” Mr. Gates told reporters traveling with him for the unannounced visit.

During his visit, Mr. Gates is meeting with his top military commanders and senior Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai.

Meanwhile, Iran is “playing a double game” in Afghanistan, trying to woo the Afghan government and undermining U.S. and NATO efforts by helping the Taliban, Mr. Gates said. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also visiting Afghanistan this week.

Mr. Gates had an unusually provocative warning for Tehran should it carry efforts to help the Taliban too far.

“They also understand that our reaction, should they get too aggressive in this, is not one they would want to think about.”

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell later said Mr. Gates was referring only to actions the United States might take inside Afghanistan and not to a wider confrontation with Iran.

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