For U.S. President Barack Obama, ruminating about the course of the war in Afghanistan from Washington, the distant provinces of Helmand and Kandahar cannot be far from his mind. Winning back Afghanistan's critical southern heartland is the primary focus of the 46-country International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is surging its troop strength past the 100,000 mark. As if to highlight the allied forces' anxiety, this month U.S. commanders downgraded the Kandahar offensive to a "process."
Whatever you call it, shifting the locus of attention to Kandahar makes strategic sense. Kandahar city is the birthplace of the Islamist movement, considered even before the birth of the Taliban as the "Philadelphia of Afghanistan" for its central role in the creation of the modern state. Kandahar, once the capital city of 18th-century Afghanistan, has been swelled by an influx of refugees and is now the home of approximately 900,000 people.
With around 70 percent of the province's population, Kandahar city offers a unique development opportunity for ISAF to put its strategy of "population-centric warfare" into effect. By cracking down on the culture of impunity embodied by Afghanistan's warlords, re-engaging the Kabul-based government in the affairs of the provinces, and providing Kandahar with services such as electricity, a victory in Kandahar could be a "head-turning" moment in the campaign — one that could shift the war's momentum.