For U.S. and NATO forces, the Marjah offensive is a warm-up to a tougher urban battle ahead in Kandahar, the "fountainhead" and "center of gravity" of the Taliban in Afghanistan, top administration officials said Friday.
"The way to look at Marjah is that it is the tactical prelude to larger, more comprehensive operations later this year in Kandahar City," senior White House officials said, echoing an announcement Monday in Kabul from Gen. Stanley McChrystal that a Kandahar offensive was not too far off. "Kandahar City is the home base, the capital city, if you will, of the Taliban movement."
The military operation in Marjah is still in its earliest phase, part one of the coalition's four-part clear, hold, build, and transfer strategy.
"We're well into the first phase, but its not yet complete," a senior official said. "We don't have adequate security yet in all of the district in and around Marjah. There are pockets of resistance on the outside."
On the upside, the Afghan flag has been raised again in Marjah, the district governor is back in office and international aid workers have begun to trickle into the city. The same approach will be taken to Kandahar, the nation's second most populous city. It's also where the Taliban was founded and where Mullah Omar ruled Afghanistan before 9/11.
Officials said it will take "several weeks" to clear Marjah and surrounding areas. The bigger and more difficult task will be building confidence with the locals and returning some semblance of non-Taliban governance.
"That's going to be tough because we don't enjoy the trust and confidence of the people," the official said. "They're suspicious. We have to win that trust and win that confidence before they're willing to side with the Afghan central government."
For all the curiosity about the pace and success of military operations, the officials stressed that moving Taliban fighters out of contested areas is only half the battle -- maybe even less.
"It's not so much a matter of the physical contest about who controls the weapons and all that," the official said. "It's a question of who controls the confidence of the people or in whom do the people have confidence. And that will only come after we're able to deliver. Security enables that, but it's not all about security itself. That's really the contest here."
Pakistan is the other front in the Taliban/Al Qaeda war and the White House now sees "a significant strategic shift...to take the fight to the Pakistani Taliban" in the Swat Valley and other parts of the North-West Frontier Province. The magnitude of the strategic shift in Pakistan, the officials said, can be seen in the nation's decision to "hold" the Swat Valley with two divisions taken from its border with India -- long considered the front-lines of a possible military clash.
"They're doing sort of classic, conventional counterinsurgency, which is, to our eyes, a positive trend," the official said. "They've taken this fight on and they have done it... moving forces off what they have traditionally considered their main effort with India."
The combined efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have acted as a small-scale pincer, forcing Taliban and Al Qaeda figures out in the open, a senior White House official said.
"Places where individuals were able to operate with some impunity in the past are no longer the case," the official said. "A number of these terrorist and militant groups are more concerned about their personal security rather than plotting and planning to carry out attacks. That's good that they are concerned about that. It forces them out of their comfort zone, it forces them to move a bit, and when they do that, there are new opportunities for us to take advantage of."
While the White House sees reason for optimism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Friday brought news of suicide bomb attacks in Kabul that killed 16, including six Indian nationals. The Taliban attack came just one day after the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan held their first bi-lateral talks since the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai by the Pakistani-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
"There are going to be good days and bad days," one official said. "Two steps forward, one step back is about what we ought to expect."
The systemic change, at least far, is that Pakistan appears willing and able to chase and capture Taliban figures that are not just threat to its security, but a threat to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
"We've had an ongoing discussion with Pakistan about the nature of the enemy itself," the senior official said, choosing words carefully. "This has not always been something we've agreed on. Our perspective is that the nest of extremists is more like a syndicate with elements of a cellular sort of network structure that is very difficult to discriminate and segregate one piece from the network itself."
Said another official, "I think what the Pakistanis see is that there are a number of individuals throughout these organizations that pose a serious threat to Pakistani national interests, and they are more determined now I think to address those."
White House officials also addressed lingering questions about Pakistani interrogations and intelligence gleaned from them. Pakistan now holds in custody numerous Taliban officials and operatives, among the biggest military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader and shadow Taliban governors Mullah Abdul Salam of Kunduz province and Mullah Mohammad in Baghlan province.
"We're getting very strong cooperation from Pakistani officials," the White House official said. "We're getting access to the intelligence. The individuals who are detained, particularly those who have a long history of involvement in certain organizations, they are not going to become a wellspring of information as soon as they're captured. This will be a process that takes time -- weeks, months, whatever. It's a continuing process of trying to debrief, interrogate, extract, elicit information from individuals. It's continuing."