Even before the U.S. offensive is finished in the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah, American officials have their sights on moving later this year into Kandahar, the second biggest city in Afghanistan.
(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
"It's a goal for 2010," said a senior administration official briefing reporters at the White House.
The official said Marjah is a "tactical prelude to a larger, more comprehensive operation" in Kandahar City, home base of the Taliban movement." Its founder, Mullah Omar, ruled Afghanistan from Kandahar.
Thousands of U.S., Afghan and NATO soldiers are still battling to oust insurgents from Marjah, in southern Helmand Province. A British soldier was killed there today, bringing to 14 the number of NATO troops killed in action since the offensive began two weeks ago.
The U.S. led operation in Marjah pursues a strategy of "clear, hold, build and transfer." The first phase is not yet completed, said the official speaking on condition he not be identfied by name. But the 2nd phase has begun. "They overlap," he said. "We're somewhere between clear and hold." He portrayed the operation in Marjah as "pretty much on track."
CBSNews.com Special Report: Afghanistan
"We're bringing governance to a place the Taliban used to govern," the official said.
The strategy includes winning the trust and confidence of the Afghan people. "That's the contest."
The operation is part of the new policy in Afghanistan announced by President Obama in a speech to the nation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on December 1, which the official noted is still less than 90 days ago.
Mr. Obama announced his plans to deploy another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but also set July 2011 as the date by which he will start to transfer security operations to Afghan forces and begin a drawdown of American personnel.
Reporters were told today that Mr. Obama is watching the progress closely. He gets a weekly written assessment and a monthly briefing from top U.S. commanders and diplomats in Afghanistan. He is said to be planning another major review on Afghanistan policy in December to answer the question: is the strategy working?
American officials also report progress in neighboring Pakistan and say a strategic dialogue between the U.S. and Pakistan started last fall.
Officials report progress in capturing or killing terrorists and report cooperation with the governments in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Asked about the collateral deaths, injuries and damage caused by unmanned American Predator aircraft, one official said Mr. Obama is briefed on "the extensive operational lengths we go to minimize the ever-present risk of civilian casualties."
The official said Mr. Obama is interested in everything we're trying to do to drive civilian casualties to zero, but appreciates that the environment in which we're working makes that a tough challenge
Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.