The U.S. Defense Department says efforts to seize control of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar are well underway in advance of what is expected to be a major military operation in June against militants in southern Afghanistan.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said U.S. troops for months have been doing the preparatory work for the operation against the Taliban in their spiritual home and birthplace of Kandahar.
Morrell said soldiers are securing routes in and out of the city, which has been rocked this month by suicide bombings and assassinations. "You're seeing additional shaping operations or you aren't seeing them. But they are underway in Kandahar proper by some of our special operations forces, who are right now engaging with tribal elements there, who are facilitating some of the shuras [i.e., meetings with tribal leaders] that are taking place, which are also a critical component to the shaping that's necessary for success in Kandahar and who are also, of course, going after mid-level and high-level Taliban fighters who are holed up within Kandahar proper," he said.
Morrell declined to say when the military will begin significant fighting in Kandahar. U.S. officials in Afghanistan say the offensive is expected in June.
U.S. President Barack Obama is sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan this year - the bulk of whom are to be deployed in Taliban strongholds in the southern part of the country.
The scale of the American offensive in Kandahar is expected to be far greater than the recent attack on insurgents in Marja, where thousands of U.S. Marines and Afghan Army soldiers began clearing the Taliban in February.
The Pentagon's Geoff Morrell says the Marines are continuing their operations in Marja because there still is a Taliban presence there. "That is why our forces remain there and in the same kind of numbers that they were when this operation began. That is why, although we are now in the holding and the building phase of this operation, there is still clearing work that remains to be done. And we are still trying to root out Taliban who are dug in and hiding or blending in," he said.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan say the intense phase of the operation against the Taliban in Kandahar is expected to last about two months and is designed to be complete before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in August.
Morrell says the Pentagon hopes the offensive will deal a fatal blow to the insurgency. "We certainly hope it will be one that will break the back, to a large extent, of the Taliban who have called it home and who have used it as a sanctuary for some time. But I don't think that anybody is of the belief that that operation in and of itself will spell victory in Afghanistan," he said.
Analysts say the military operations in southern Afghanistan are a key test of President Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban, while protecting the Afghan population.