Operations to push the Taliban out of their iconic Afghan stronghold of Kandahar are underway and will steadily build in the months ahead, military officials said Thursday.
The military and political efforts against the Taliban around Kandahar, Afghanistan's third biggest city and the militia's spiritual capital, are the next step in the US-led strategy to end a war now in its ninth year.
"We have been making preparation and plans concerning Operation Omaid," said General Sher Mohammad Zazai, Afghan army commander in the country's south.
"We're still working on the plan," he said, without giving further details.
Kandahar is the next target in major military operations to eradicate the Taliban from areas they have controlled, in many cases in tandem with drug cartels, over the years since their regime was overthrown in 2001.
The commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal, said the offensive had begun with initial military and political efforts, including operations to secure key roads and districts.
Speaking by teleconference to reporters in Washington, he said: "That process has already begun (and) will ramp up in the weeks and months ahead," lasting "a significant time".
Operation Omaid follows Operation Mushtarak, currently under way in neighbouring Helmand province, which appears to have largely pushed back the Taliban and given the government a chance to take control.
Mushtarak -- "together" in Dari and Pashto -- is the first operation in a 12-18-month campaign for which President Barack Obama is sending another 30,000 troops, with 10,000 from NATO, aimed at taking the fight to the Taliban.
The strategy comprises military, political and civilian approaches in four stages dubbed "shape, take, hold and build" and aims to ensure that once eradicated, the insurgent threat does not re-emerge.
Initial stages of the strategy aimed at speeding up the war's end began in Kandahar province around November, a Western official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"The emphasis increased last November, and most of it is invisible because it is aimed at understanding the situation on the ground, the political landscape and the human terrain," he said.
"We all understand how important and iconic Kandahar is for the Taliban -- it was their first foothold."
Kandahar, capital of the eponymous province, is Afghanistan's third biggest city after Kabul and Herat and the spiritual capital of the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until their overthrow in the 2001 US-led invasion.
Foreign and Afghan forces, and residents would "regrettably" have to accept "the ability of the Taliban to run spectaculars" such as a multiple suicide bomb attack that hit the city last weekend, the Western official said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Saturday's assault, which killed 35 people, saying it was intended to sabotage the planned offensive.
McChrystal said safeguarding roads was crucial and that the US military had deployed more unmanned surveillance aircraft and other resources to combat roadside bombs, a key Taliban weapon.
The number of foreign troops under US and NATO command is set to rise to 150,000 by August, with most of the new deployment heading to the south.
The 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan troops currently deployed to Helmand's Marjah and Nad Ali areas for Operation Mushtarak will remain in the province for other offensives there, the Western official said.
Newly arrived troops would be sent to Kandahar, he said, adding that foreign troops would remain in both provinces to ensure security was maintained and the Taliban did not re-emerge.
But in the battle to win the allegiance of local people, perceptions that Kandahar's leaders are corrupt could be an obstacle to long-term success, military officials have said.
President Hamid Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, the elected leader of Kandahar's provincial council, has long denied allegations that he has ties to the three-billion-dollar-a-year illicit drug trade.