KABUL (Reuters) -- NATO will amass troops gradually to control the Taliban's birthplace Kandahar rather than launch one big assault as they did in nearby Helmand last month, the commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan said today.
U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal has said his next target is Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, where U.S. and NATO forces hope to retake control this year.
The city served as the spiritual seat of power for reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar before the militants were ousted from Afghanistan by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001. Militants have since made substantial gains in the area.
In a war room at his headquarters in Kabul, McChrystal told reporters he did not envision any "D-Day" for Kandahar with major troop movements, unlike the much-touted assault on Marjah, the Taliban's stronghold in Helmand Province.
"Militarily it will not look much like Marjah," McChrystal said. "There won't be a 'D-Day' that is climactic. It will be a rising tide of security as it comes."
"Slightly ahead of that there needs to be a lot of preparatory work in terms of governance," he said.
He declined to give a timeline for the operation. Asked when troops would be at full force for the Kandahar operation, McChrystal said: "Early summer...our forces will be significantly increased around there by early summer."
Retaking full control of Kandahar is a key test of U.S. President Barack Obama's Afghan strategy -- designed by McChrystal -- to reverse the tide in a conflict in which casualties and costs are rising.
Most of the combat forces among 30,000 extra troops Obama ordered to Afghanistan in December will be arriving in Kandahar in coming months.
McChrystal, a workaholic who eats just one meal a day and sleeps just a few hours a night, described the city in an assessment of the war last August as a "key geographic objective" of the Quetta Shura Taliban, the main insurgent faction led by Mullah Omar.
Militants have over the past year made startling gains in the area around Kandahar. But unlike in Marjah, where the Taliban had total control, U.S. officials stress there is a state presence in Kandahar, however spotty.
Mark Sedwill, a British diplomat serving as the senior NATO civilian official in Afghanistan, said one of the biggest challenges in Kandahar was making all sectors of the population feel they are represented.
"Certain groups are well represented, other tribal groups feel disenfranchised. And of course that tension tends to fuel disagreement, resentment and thus the insurgency," Sedwill said.
"A lot of this shaping in the case of Kandahar...will be political, in advance [of the military operation], drawing in various tribal leaders and elders, setting up shuras," he said, referring to council meetings with elders.
The most powerful government official in Kandahar is Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's half-brother, who serves as leader of the provincial council.
U.S. military planners say the Karzai family role is one difference between Kandahar and Helmand, with Ahmad Wali Karzai a polarizing figure who may not be able to make the same connection with all groups as Helmand's governor has.