Kandahar Offensive "Make-or-Break" for U.S.

In Pakistan, the CIA is stepping up attacks on the Taliban just days after the United States blamed them for the attempted terror attack in Times Square. The United States is also planning a new offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was talking about that in Washington Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. More Americans are about to risk their lives in what could be the most critical battle of the war, as CBS News correspondent David Martin reports.

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More than 20,000 U.S. and allied troops are gearing up for the make-or-break operation of the Afghan war - retaking the city of Kandahar from the Taliban. According to Stephen Biddle, a civilian adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the outcome of the entire war is riding on it.

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"If we fail to secure this population, it's hard to see how the campaign could succeed," Biddle said.

The operation, which has already begun with commando raids that have killed or captured more than 100 Taliban operatives, is the whole point of President Obama's troop surge.

Right now there are only 12,000 U.S., Canadian and Afghan troops in and around Kandahar and, Michael Semple, who has spent more than two decades in Afghanistan, says that's not enough to stop the Taliban's reign of terror.

"The Taliban have infiltrated assassination groups into Kandahar who are able to assassinate at will," Semple said. "Every day somebody is being picked off."

Between now and July, the number of troops will essentially double. American and Canadian troops will set up bases in the districts surrounding Kandahar and spread out into the villages where the Taliban have their safe havens.

At the same time, U.S. and Afghan forces will establish checkpoints - 40 in all - on roads leading into Kandahar. Inside the city, U.S. troops will man every police station alongside Afghan police.

"The weak point in the strategy is the Afghan police. They have yet to prove themselves," Semple said.

Operation Cooperation for Kandahar, as it is officially called, dwarfs in both size and significance the earlier attempt to root out the Taliban from their stronghold in Marjah, the poppy growing heart of Afghanistan.

"The operation in Kandahar is 100 times more important than the operation in Marjah," Semple said. "Marjah was a sideshow; Kandahar is the real thing."

The Marjah operation is still not over and U.S. officers do not expect the Kandahar operation to produce results until the end of the year.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.