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Small bands of elite American Special Operations forces have been operating with increased intensity for several weeks in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city, picking up or picking off insurgent leaders to weaken the Taliban in advance of major operations, senior administration and military officials say.
The looming battle for the spiritual home of the Taliban is shaping up as the pivotal test of President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, including how much the United States can count on the country’s leaders and military for support, and whether a possible increase in civilian casualties from heavy fighting will compromise a strategy that depends on winning over the Afghan people.
It will follow a first offensive, into the hamlet of Marja, that is showing mixed results. And it will require the United States and its Afghan partners to navigate a battleground that is not only much bigger than Marja but also militarily, politically and culturally more complex.
“Large numbers of insurgent leadership based in and around Kandahar have been captured or killed,” said one senior American military officer directly involved in planning the Kandahar offensive. But, he acknowledged, “it’s still a contested battle space.”