The next focus for coalition forces in Afghanistan looks set to be Zhari district, the birthplace of the Taliban and a major southern nest of the insurgency.
Canadian Forces tried for years to pacify Zhari, in Kandahar province. However, for much of that time, the Canadian military had only a fraction of the forces the Americans now have to secure the 300-square-kilometre district.
Three fighting battalions from the 101st Airborne Division, comprising about 2,400 soldiers, having been assembled in Zhari. Canadian troops are in the adjacent district of Panjwai.
Securing Zhari is a key part of Operation Hamkari, a belated coalition decision to throw firepower at Kandahar to beat back the insurgency in the province, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the region that is believed to be their top target.
Many believe that this summer's battle for Kandahar may be the decisive campaign of the war.
Taking Zhari out of Taliban hands would help safeguard Kandahar city, the second largest in Afghanistan, as the district, which lies just to the west, is used as a conduit to smuggle in fighters and explosives.
"Zhari has become perhaps the most important Taliban safe haven in Kandahar province," said Carl Forsberg, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, an independent research organization based in Washington. "It is a key node for Taliban lines of communication across Kandahar and gives the Taliban a base from which to contest control of Highway One [the arterial road that circles Afghanistan]"
The Taliban made a forceful return to Zhari in 2006, after its initial easy defeat by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since re-emerging, the Taliban established an administrative structure in Zhari, including tax collection and courts. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) only honed in on Kandahar province this summer, after years of prioritizing the adjacent Helmand province.
"The required concentration of coalition forces has not been here, but the concentration of Taliban is just as high as [in]Helmand," said Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Davis, of the 101st Airborne. "This area is the Taliban's Washington, D.C."
Mullah Omar founded the Taliban movement in 1994 in what is now Zhari district as a popularly backed reaction to the feuding warlords that had pushed Afghanistan into bandit-plagued civil war. His Taliban first secured Zhari, where Mullah Omar ran a religious seminary in the village of Singesar, and the portion of Highway One that passes through the area, going on to conquer most of the country over the next two years.
According to most accounts, Mullah Omar first made his mark by hanging a local predatory warlord, who had kidnapped and raped two teenage girls, from the barrel of a tank, after raising a small militia of religious students.
The insurgents in Zhari are holed up in a 40-kilometre sliver of lush farmland south of Highway One where trees and fields of grapes and pomegranates provide excellent cover. Some have dubbed the area "the bread basket of the Taliban."
Earlier this week, Major-General Nick Carter, the British head of ISAF's Regional Command South, said: "We will have rid those areas [Kandahar city and the surrounding villages]of the Taliban" by mid- to late November.
He said there were 10,000 to 12,000 Afghan army troops in the region, 5,000 Afghan police and about 15,000 international troops. That would make it the biggest Afghan-coalition joint fighting force assembled in the nine years of the conflict. They face about 1,000 guerrillas, Gen. Carter said.
"We're trying to stress to the people that this [coalition military presence]is not something they've seen for the last nine years," said Captain Brant Auge, commander of a U.S. combat outpost at Asheqeh, surrounded by Taliban-held villages in the east of Zhari. "We're trying to create a bubble, [to]hold down the Taliban long enough to allow the local security forces to be in a position to take over."
Zhari is sparsely populated. The eastern town of Senjaray is the only major urban centre; the Taliban make their presence known almost nightly with an attack on coalition or Afghan security forces. The rest of Zhari is sprinkled with small settlements whose conservative social mores were to form the basis of the Taliban's extreme interpretation of Islam.
This year, ISAF's major effort has been to wrest control of the town of Marjah, in Helmand province, from the Taliban. The highly publicized operations, followed by the much more low-key attempt to secure Kandahar province, had mixed results.
Coalition forces believe they have already secured much of the area north of Kandahar city, the Arghandab Valley, which provided the other major route into the city. They also have tried to improve security inside the city.
"Zhari and Panjwai are the last pieces of this problem set [in Kandahar]" said a senior ISAF officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Todday we own about 10 per cent of those areas."
Special to The Globe and Mail