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updated 5/21/2010 2:49:27 PM ET 2010-05-21T18:49:27

U.S. commanders are bolstering their forces in this rural district where Mullah Mohammad Omar organized the Taliban more than a decade ago, hoping to wrest control of an area considered the key to securing the nearby city of Kandahar.

The Taliban use Zhari district as one of their main command and control centers to stage attacks against Kandahar City, about 20 miles to the east.

Securing Kandahar, with its half million people, is a key U.S. goal for the summer. To do that, the U.S.-led forces have to control Zhari and other communities north and west of the city.

"This is the battleground for Kandahar," said Lt. Col. Dave Abrahams, deputy commander of the Stryker battalion responsible for operations in western Zhari. "The Taliban have freedom of movement and operational control in the area."

NATO forces have tried for years to push the Taliban from Zhari and other key districts such as Panjwai and Arghandab. But the alliance never had enough troops to hold areas they attempted to clear of militants.

The coalition now plans to roughly triple the number of soldiers in Zhari this summer to about 3,000. Even with reinforcements, securing Zhari will be difficult because the district is almost entirely under Taliban control.

Dangerous ground
The new troops must overcome a chronic shortage of intelligence about the enemy, rugged terrain that robs them of the protection of their heavily armored vehicles, problems with local Afghan security forces and a local population that has historically provided aid and support to the Taliban.

And the militants know they are coming.

"They are certainly taking advantage of the time they have right now to pre-position caches of weapons, ammunition, explosives and IED-making materials," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey French, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment in western Zhari.

French said they have also observed additional fighters moving into Zhari this spring, but don't have a clear picture of the total number of Taliban here.

The information gap is part of a broader intelligence deficit that makes it difficult for soldiers to distinguish between innocent farmers and the Taliban fighters they are trying to capture or kill.

"To us they all dress and look the same," said Lt. Scott Doyle, the commander of a platoon that operates out of a rugged outpost in the village of Lako Khel. "It's so easy for them to pop off a few shots, lay down their weapon, pick up a shovel and walk away."

Lako Khel is located only about a mile west of the village of Singesar, where Mullah Omar used to run an Islamic school before establishing the militant group in 1994. Singesar remains a hotbed of Taliban activity, but the coalition has been unable to target the village or other sanctuaries in the area because of a lack of troops.

'Step back'
Roughly 1,000 soldiers are now based in Zhari, an area about one-tenth the size of Rhode Island with an estimated 65,000 people.

"The way the terrain is laid out, you can only patrol a few kilometers from certain bases," said Capt. Christopher Ulrich, the commander of the company responsible for the outpost in Lako Khel.

When soldiers leave their bases, they are confronted by a local population made up of tribes that have historically supported the Taliban because they have been shunned by the government — a trend that has continued under the current administration.

"There is a certain cynicism that any kind of governance could really come in there and help improve their life," said Col. David Bellon, the deputy operations officer for NATO in southern Afghanistan. "If we just went trundling on down into Zhari this summer in a conventional way, then we could expect resistance."

The coalition is trying to figure out a way to convince the population of the government's good intentions, Bellon said. But the district governor who would have spearheaded that effort resigned less than two weeks ago to run for parliament, a big "step back," he said.

Even had the governor stayed, any attempt to increase cooperation between residents and the government would be challenging because of Taliban intimidation, U.S. commanders say. The district governor himself had to work out of a U.S. base in Zhari because of Taliban threats.

'Center of gravity'
Even residents who oppose the Taliban are wary of this summer's offensive. A group of tribal elders who work with the district government recently presented a list of demands, saying the upcoming operation must avoid civilian casualties, hold territory that is cleared and place Afghan forces in the lead, according to Zhari's former district governor, Mohammed Niyaz Serhadi.

The last demand could be particularly hard to meet since coalition forces in Zhari have struggled to get their counterparts in the Afghan army to join them on patrols into Taliban territory. French said the problem is a result of a shortage of Afghan troops and their singular focus on patrolling the main highway rather than mingling with the people in their villages.

Despite the challenges, French said it is critical for the coalition to succeed in Zhari.

"People talk about Kandahar City and Kandahar province being the center of gravity for the Taliban movement, when in actuality Zhari itself is the homeland to many of the leaders," he said. "There is a psychological value that probably even goes beyond it being an area they can operate from and influence Kandahar City."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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