(For more on Afghanistan, click on [ID:nAFPAK])
By Jonathon Burch and Ismail Sameem
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, May 7 (Reuters) - While military commanders in Afghanistan try to play down an upcoming offensive in Kandahar, many residents in the southern province remain sceptical and fear they will bear the brunt of any assault.
Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama next week and the Kandahar offensive will be high on the agenda after a spate of civilian deaths caused a rift between Kabul and Washington.
On the outskirts of southern Afghanistan's largest city, thousands of U.S. troops have been preparing to drive the Taliban from their spiritual home next month in what is being billed as the biggest military offensive of the 9-year-old war. The operation, involving at least 23,000 NATO and Afghan troops, is the central objective of U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency plan to turn the tide using reinforcements pledged by Obama in December.
It's an objective lost on many Kandahar residents.
"We don't know if this operation brings any advantages, but something we know for sure is innocent people will be killed, harmed and displaced," said Kaka Shirin, a Kandahar shopkeeper.
Commanders are playing down the possibility of heavy fighting in the city, stressing the political aims of extending the reach of the Afghan state into an area of growing Taliban influence.
Even the language adopted by military officials has changed, with words like "operation" or "offensive" no longer used.
"PROCESS", NOT OFFENSIVE
"We would like to call it a process that is encompassing military and non-military instruments," Brigadier General Josef Blotz, the spokesman for NATO forces, told reporters this week.
Ominously, there has been a surge in attacks and political assassinations in Kandahar city recently. Residents fear more bloodshed as some 10,000 troops move into their neighbourhoods.
Most of the troops will stay in rural areas trying to cut off access routes into the city while a 3,500-strong U.S. army brigade will aim to push into Kandahar city, accompanied by almost 7,000 Afghan police.
"More foreign troops means more attacks and more dead civilians," said Khan Mohammad, a car dealer.
"I think the government and international troops, especially Americans, should open their eyes and realise they can't beat the Taliban through military means," he said.
Commanders have also been trying to draw distinctions between Kandahar and an operation in Helmand in February, when thousands of U.S. Marines pushed into Marjah, a rural insurgent stronghold.
Some say that operation, aimed at driving out the Taliban and winning over the population, has so far failed.
A report by policy think tank the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) this week found that 61 percent of 400 men interviewed in and around Marjah felt more negative about NATO forces than before the operation.
"In other words, the objective of winning 'hearts and minds' -- one of the fundamental tenets of the new counter-insurgency strategy -- was not met," ICOS said in the report.
In Kandahar's outlying provinces, where U.S. troops go on patrols and have been conducting "shaping operations" before the main campaign, many Afghans are simply stuck in the middle.
U.S. soldiers from a Stryker Brigade set up a checkpoint outside Moshak village, a Taliban "frontline", on a recent patrol in Maiwand district, west of Kandahar city.
"What do the Taliban say to you?" U.S. Captain Drew Schaub asked a man on a motorcycle.
"They ask the same things as you: 'What do you do? Where are you going?'," replied the man, who did not want to be named for fear of Taliban retribution. "After you leave, at night, the Taliban will come and set up their own checkpoint, accusing us of being spies for the Americans," he said.
The biggest frustration for many soldiers is not knowing who they are fighting.
"I'm in the bazaar and I'm thinking: 'this guy next to me could be my enemy. I just don't know'," one U.S. soldier said.
"The army is not designed for this kind of fight."
(Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Alistair Scrutton) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)