WASHINGTON, March 17, 2010 (AFP) - US operations to push back Taliban forces around Kandahar have "already begun" and will steadily build in coming months, the commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan said Wednesday.
General Stanley McChrystal told reporters that the US-led offensive on the Taliban's spiritual heartland had started with initial military and political efforts, including operations designed to secure key roads and districts surrounding the southern city.
"And instead of putting a date certain on which there would be a climactic military operation, I tell you, that process has already begun," McChrystal said by teleconference from Afghanistan.
The general said the operation "will ramp up in the weeks and months ahead" and would last for "a significant time period."
His comments came after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a major bombing attack on Saturday that killed 35 people in Kandahar, which the insurgents said was a response to the US-led offensive.
"This was to sabotage the operation and to show we can strike anywhere, any time we want," a Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi, said earlier.
Kandahar was the Taliban's base during their rule of the country, which ended with a US-led invasion in 2001.
The city has emerged as a pivotal battleground, with NATO officers hoping to deliver a damaging blow to the insurgency on its home territory.
McChrystal also said the Taliban appeared rattled by the recent arrest of the insurgency's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Pakistan.
He said the capture in February of Baradar "seems to have shaken the confidence of some of the Afghan Taliban leadership."
"We see indications that they are trying to figure out what way ahead that they should plot," he said.
Ambassador Mark Sedwill, the NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan, told the same teleconference the Taliban appeared to be "recalibrating" as pressure from coalition forces and Pakistan was "changing the calculus."
McChrystal said safeguarding the roads in and out of Kandahar was a crucial part of the offensive, and the US military had deployed more unmanned surveillance aircraft and other resources to combat roadside bombs planted by the insurgents, he said.
"If you control the environs around Kandahar, you go a long way to controlling Kandahar."
He said coalition forces, including members of a US Army Stryker brigade outside Kandahar, had made some progress in securing the roads.
But he predicted the Taliban "will do everything they can to try to make that as difficult as possible" over the next several months.
The plan to "increase security" in the Kandahar region would involve "a lot of political activities as well," he said.
Referring to "complex" political conditions in Kandahar, he said coalition forces would be working "to shape the political relationships in and around Kandahar," but offered no details.
US military officers and officials privately acknowledge Kandahar's local leadership has a reputation for corruption that will pose a challenge for any attempt to counter the influence of Taliban militants.
US commanders had touted an offensive launched last month in Marjah in the neighboring Helmand province partly by depicting the provincial governor there as honest and effective.
But officers have said carrying out a similar operation in Kandahar would be much more daunting given the corruption charges swirling around President Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
Karzai's brother, the head of Kandahar's provincial council, has been dogged by allegations he has ties to the illegal opium trade.