KABUL — The commander of international forces in Afghanistan was quoted as saying Monday that the southern province of Kandahar was likely to be the next target of operations to eradicate the Taliban.
US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of 121,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said a major offensive now in its second week in a poppy-growing valley in Helmand province was a "model for the future".
Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar -- where Kandahar city was once the Taliban capital -- have been the main hotspots of the insurgency launched soon after the US-led invasion toppled the Islamists' 1996-2001 regime.
NATO and Afghan officials have said that Operation Mushtarak (Together) under way in Helmand is a template for expanding the campaign to at least three other Taliban-held areas of the province.
McChrystal was quoted by Britain's The Times newspaper as telling reporters that operations will also move into Kandahar, although he did not specify any areas.
"We are going to go to where significant parts of the population are at risk and Kandahar is clearly very, very important not just to the south but to the nation," he said, adding: "It is not the only area though."
Some 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan troops are facing some strong resistance from Taliban fighters in the Marjah and Nad Ali areas of the central Helmand River valley, slowed by snipers and hidden bombs.
Operation Mushtarak is a test of a new US-led strategy for wresting control from Taliban and drug traffickers in the region as part of a blueprint for re-establishing Afghan government sovereignty.
It is also the first test of US President Barack Obama's faith in McChrystal's counter-insurgency plans for Afghanistan, in which the military works closely with civilian authorities to neutralise insurgent influence.
"In many ways it is a model for the future: an Afghan-led operation supported by the coalition, deeply engaged with the people," McChrystal was quoted as saying.
Top US General David Petraeus told US television on Sunday that Mushtarak is the initial stage of a plan McChrystal has mapped out for the coming 12-18 months -- coinciding with Obama's timetable for withdrawal of US troops.
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