KANDAHAR: The chief of US Central Command warned Kandahar residents on Friday of a violent summer ahead, predicting "horrific actions" by insurgents as his troops try to drive the Taliban from the southern Afghan city.
US forces are massing on the outskirts of the southern city for the biggest military offensive of the nearly nine-year-old war, in the hope of turning the tide against a strengthening Taliban insurgency.
The Taliban have responded over the last few weeks with a campaign of bomb attacks, assassinations and suicide raids. The city's worsening security prompted the United Nations to shut its Kandahar office and withdraw foreign staff this week.
General David Petraeus, who as head of US Central Command is responsible for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, acknowledged security had deteriorated in the city, and said it was likely to get worse before it gets better.
"The enemy is going to take horrific actions to disrupt the progress that Afghan and coalition civilian and military elements are working so hard to achieve," Petraeus told Kandahar journalists at a news conference in the city.
"There have been tough moments here in Kandahar in recent weeks. That is well known. And we know that there will be more tough moments in the weeks and months ahead," said Petraeus, who commanded US troops during the 2007 "surge" in Baghdad.
"As we learned in Iraq, as we have re-learned in Afghanistan, when you fight to take away the momentum and the sanctuaries and safe havens of the enemy, the enemy fights back.
"And that can mean difficult and tough fights. But that is something that is necessary, because the mission here in Afghanistan is of extraordinary importance to the Afghan people, to the region and to the world," he said.
Spiritual home of Taliban
Kandahar was the spiritual capital of the Taliban movement when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001. Petraeus said the September 11, 2001 attacks were planned in the city.
The upcoming offensive will involve at least 23,000 NATO troops and members of the Afghan security forces. US and Canadian troops have already begun "shaping operations" in rural districts around Kandahar, and will begin moving into urban areas after additional U.S. forces arrive in the next few weeks.
Washington calls the offensive the cornerstone of President Barack Obama's "surge" strategy in Afghanistan to turn the tide this year after years in which the Taliban have made rapid gains.
The number of U. troops in Afghanistan has increased by 4,000-5,000 a month during Obama's presidency, a process which will end abruptly in August. By that time there will be 100,000 U.S. troops, up from just 32,000 when Obama took power.
The Kandahar operation will be one of the last to take advantage of that surge in troop strength. After that, U.S. troop levels will remain steady for a year, until Washington begins to withdraw in mid-2011.
Thousands of additional US troops have already entered rural districts of Kandahar since the middle of the last year. Petraeus said they had made gains, although he acknowledged that areas remain under Taliban control.
"The shaping operations, the preparatory operations have been ongoing already for some months," Petraeus said. "As the substantial additional force that's flowing in (arrives) over the course of the next couple of months, the intensity of security operations will increase accordingly.
"None of this will be easy. As I said, the enemy will fight back," he said. "Our experience in Iraq was it got harder before it got easier."