The US Army faces a major challenge to win back the Taliban’s historic stronghold of Kandahar — a key battleground in the increasingly bloody fight to control Afghanistan.
“Kandahar city is nationally critical,” said Steve Biddle, from the Centre of Foreign Relations think tank in Washington. “It’s one of the small number of places where a true setback could be a war loser”.
A combat brigade of about 4,000 US soldiers has been sent to the volatile 54,000-square-kilometre southern province.
Until their arrival, just 2,800 Canadian troops had spent the last three years trying to ensure security for the province’s 900,000 people.
“Taliban have always viewed Kandahar city as the jewel of the south and as their ultimate goal,” said US intelligence officer Captain Mark Richardson. “They believe that what Kandahar does, all the Afghans will do.”
As the Afghan conflict enters its ninth year, the Taliban in Afghanistan now control most of the 17 districts in the province and have spread into Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city and the movement's spiritual home.
In a sign of its importance to the NATO coalition, the heavily-guarded military base to the south of the city has grown into the second-biggest behind Bagram, near the capital Kabul.
Originally constructed for 12,000 people, the base now has between 30,000 and 40,000 occupants from all countries participating in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations —and is getting bigger.
“If we retake Kandahar, if the people are satisfied and development works, that will spread everywhere in Afghanistan,” said a Western official familiar with the situation.