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U.S. braces for Kandahar fight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Targeted strikes by U.S. special forces against insurgents around Kandahar are yielding results, but war planners expect tough fighting ahead and more casualties, a U.S. military official said on Wednesday.

Soldiers with the US Army's 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division conduct an early morning patrol in the village of Saidon Kalacheh in Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar July 28, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

The campaign to secure the Taliban’s birthplace of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan is a central objective of President Barack Obama’s revised war effort and will factor prominently in a White House strategy review in December.

But U.S. officials are playing down expectations of any quick turnaround, despite Obama’s July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, conditions permitting.

Heavy fighting is not expected in Kandahar city itself, where efforts are focused on bolstering security and improving performance of a local government often criticized as ineffective and corrupt, the U.S. official said.

But some surrounding districts, including Panjwai, will require the kind of clearing operations by NATO and Afghan forces that mean confrontation with a Taliban enemy, at its strongest since the nine-year-old war began.

“It’s going to be some pretty tough fighting,” the U.S. official, speaking on condition that he not be named, told a small group of reporters at the Pentagon.

“In mid-fall, and I’d say you’re probably going to see an increase in kinetic activity as we clear these areas.”

Special operations forces have been paving the way for traditional clearing operations, targeting Taliban leaders, their supplies and bomb-making factories, the official said. He did not offer a number of how many Taliban have been killed so far by special forces, but said: “It’s important.”

“As we’re gearing up with the conventional force to do a shape, clear, hold, build (operations), we’ve been doing a very high op-tempo special operations missions into these areas,” the official said.

“And all of these areas are going to be cleared with good effects. So we think the conditions are being set for this campaign to unfold just the way we think it’s going to.”

June was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the conflict began in 2001 and the rising casualties are eroding support for the war in Western capitals.

Still, asked about the Kandahar campaign specifically, the official said: “This is the resistance we expected.”


One of the big question marks over the U.S. strategy in Kandahar has been Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half brother, who has been accused of corruption and ties to the drug trade.

As head of Kandahar’s provincial council, Ahmad Wali Karzai wields considerable power in the southern Afghan city.

The U.S. official said the U.S. anti-corruption strategy was not focused on individual “personalities,” but instead on “some of the levers out there that have been used by power brokers to exercise influence.”

A key way to do that was tightening control on millions of dollars spent on U.S. contracts in Afghanistan.

“Gaining visibility on things like where our money is going and then holding people accountable for how these things are used -- that in fact will constrain any inappropriate actions by power brokers,” the official said, responding to a question about Karzai’s brother.

Cooperation by Ahmad Wali Karzai could be critical to the Kandahar campaign and the official acknowledged his importance.

“He’s the brother of the president with an informal amount of influence. He has a role in the legitimate governance of Kandahar,” he said.

General David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, is expected to address questions about efforts to counter corruption during a media-blitz due to begin this weekend on a U.S. talk show, the official said.

Another way of tackling corruption is a closer look at contracts given to private security firms.

“Back to President Karzai, he stated he wants to stand those (firms) down within two years. We think this is very positive. You know there’s estimates of up to 30,000 private security contractors out there,” the official said.

“If we can legitimize or integrate these people into the (Afghan National Security Forces) as we grow them, then that removes that as another leaver of malign actors from the environment.”

Editing by Stacey Joyce