repares for an assault next month into the birthplace of the Taliban, he doesn’t sugarcoat the hurdles his troops face in this crucial swath of southern Afghanistan…”Security sucks. Development? Nothing substantial. Information campaign? Nobody believes us. Governance? We’ve had one, hour-long visit by a government official in the last 2 1/2 months,” the battalion commander says. “Taliban is the home team here.”… Zhari, a district just west of Kandahar through which the insurgents funnel fighters, drugs, explosives and stage attacks into the city…Senior commanders call the fight for Zhari the next step — Phase 3 — of a wider campaign to pacify Kandahar, the country’s second largest city…Zhari itself remains insurgent territory despite five major NATO operations in recent years. In September 2006, a Canadian-led force launched a major operation in Zhari and nearby Panjwai district, pushing out the Taliban but at a cost of 28 coalition lives. Months later, the Taliban were back…Militarily, Benchoff will have to seize the village of Singesar, site of Mullah Omar’s school now defended by fortified trenches, mortars and mines, and stop Taliban movements and ambushes along Highway 1 and a parallel dirt road dubbed Iron City…”We are now poking the bear, trying to figure out how he will react and then developing ways to set him up to our advantage,” says Benchoff, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. “We are taking our time to do it right. We don’t want to charge in with shock and awe like in Marjah, and then come out scratching our heads and saying, ‘What happened here?'”…Marjah, a town in neighboring Helmand province, was captured in a highly heralded operation in February but has yet to see either solid security or effective government presence….Development and governance-wise, the area is starting from virtually zero….”Will we get all this done in a year? Probably not,” says Benchoff. He notes while U.S. troops may begin pulling out of Afghanistan in July, they will remain in Zhari for at least 1 1/2 years with a replacement for his unit already alerted. “But I think we can do enough here to take the pressure off Kandahar and hope that the ANA can then continue to hold it.”… “They are essential. Before they came, we got nothing out of the locals. People wouldn’t talk to us. Now we’re starting to get tips, information,” he says. “Maybe not a waterfall, but a steady trickle.”…

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