* Campaign making it hard for civilians to operate in city
* Assassination teams strike on motorcycles
* Targeted killings come before major military offensive
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, May 6 (Reuters) - The Taliban has launched an assassination campaign against Afghan officials in Kandahar, undermining Washington’s goal of building up local governance, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.
The State Department’s top official in southern Afghanistan, Frank Ruggiero, told lawmakers it was increasingly hard for civilians -- including U.S. aid workers -- to operate in Kandahar because of targeted killings by the Taliban.
"The Taliban has unleashed a serious assassination campaign inside of Kandahar City," said Ruggiero, referring to Afghanistan’s second-biggest city and the next focus of U.S. military operations.
"These are literally two-motorcycle, two-men teams that go around the city to attempt their objectives of assassinating Afghan government officials," he added.
The latest string of attacks comes weeks ahead of a major military offensive in southern Kandahar province, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban. Getting full control of the area is seen as key to turning around the eight-year war.
An important element of the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy is to build up local government so it can deliver key services to the population and ultimately weaken support for the Taliban.
"These assassination squads, these bombings of government departments -- they really are going after what they understand is key to our strategy ... to build the government up so that they can provide basic services," he said.
In recent weeks the deputy mayor of Kandahar was gunned down, as were other officials, including a representative for the culture ministry and other officials, Ruggiero told Reuters after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
He said the security plan for Kandahar needed to include protection and secure facilities to house government staff, with a particular focus on those deemed essential.
Getting the civilian side of the Afghan strategy has been one of the toughest challenges in the military push in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, seen as a test case before the Kandahar offensive in the coming weeks.
Ruggiero said it was difficult to get the right people in government jobs when they were needed, a problem that could be exacerbated by the Taliban’s latest targeted killings.
Asked by lawmakers what kept him up at night, U.S. Brigadier-General John Nicholson, head of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon, said it was building up government competence as well as the problem of corruption.
"It is not the enemy that concerns me as much as the ability of the government to connect with people and the capability of the government to enhance its legitimacy," said Nicholson.
Lawmakers pressed Nicholson and others on the problem of the Taliban seeping back into Marjah following the offensive.
"I question how well we can clear areas when Taliban fighters melt into the local populace and hold them in a sustainable manner when regular police forces are perceived to be corrupt or unreliable," said Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.
A survey released on Thursday by policy think tank the International Council on Security and Development found that 68 percent of those interviewed in Marjah believed the Taliban would return and complained of NATO actions.
Asked about the report, Nicholson and Ruggiero said the interviews had been conducted early on in the Marjah operation.
"It is a work in progress but treading in the right direction," Nicholson said. (Editing by Eric Walsh)