KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — U.S.-led forces began a key operation Wednesday in the 9-year-old war in Afghanistan, meeting surprisingly little initial resistance in the district in the south of the country that gave birth to the Taliban.
The offensive to secure Zhari district is part of the last phase of attempting to stabilize the crucial province of Kandahar by the end of this year. The White House plans a December review of its Afghan policy and progress toward its plans to begin withdrawing U.S. troops next July.
At least 4,800 troops — half of them American, half Afghan — are taking part in the operation, military officials said. Three battalions of the 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Ky. — plus Rangers, U.S. special operations forces and Afghan troops — moved into the insurgent-held "green zone" of Zhari, a strip of farmland that offers cover for guerrilla fighting.
The offensive comes just ahead of Saturday's parliamentary elections, a day that's likely to be bloody, warned the top International Security Assistance Force commander in the south, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter of Britain.
"If it is like last year" — when presidential elections were held — "it will be a very violent day," Carter said in Kandahar. The Taliban "will want to make it violent enough for people to want to stay indoors."
With the American troop surge complete, commanders think that this autumn is the best chance they'll have to take the fight to the insurgents before the United States and its allies begin to withdraw and the strained unity in the international community dissipates. The troops now assembled in Kandahar represent the greatest firepower that the International Security Assistance Force and Afghan forces have ever been able to deploy.
However, it's not clear whether the Taliban will stand and fight in Zhari or will manage to evade the offensive, and the insurgents already have stepped up operations elsewhere in the country where there are allied troops.