The United States is planning to launch a military offensive in Afghanistan's Kandahar city following the military operation to drive Taliban fighters out of the town of Marjah in Helmand province, a senior US official has said.
"I think the way to look at Marjah, it's the tactical prelude to larger, more comprehensive operations later this year in Kandahar city," news agencies quoted the unnamed official as saying on Friday.
Afghan troops raised their flag over Marjah as the town was symbolically handed over to the Kabul government's control after two weeks of fighting by a joint Afghan, Nato and US Marine force.
The senior US official told reporters that the military operation was "pretty much on track", but cautioned that it would be several more weeks before Nato troops had cleared the area of Taliban fighters.
The Marjah offensive was an early test of the new strategy of Barack Obama , the US president, to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistanto win control of Taliban-held areas and put in a civilian administration.
Kandahar 'very important'
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, said earlier this week that "Operation Moshtarak" was a "model for the future".
"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 told Britain's The Timesnewspaper.
"It is not the only area though."
Kandahar is Afghanistan's second biggest city and has been a centre for Taliban resistance since the movement was forced from power by the US-led invasion in 2001.
"If the goal in Afghanistan is to reverse the momentum of the Taliban ... then we think we have to get to Kandahar this year," the US administration official was quoted as saying.
"Bringing security, comprehensive population security to Kandahar city is the centrepiece of operations this year. Therefore, Marjah is the prelude, a sort of a preparatory action."
Al Jazeera's Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, said that the reported plans for a Kandahar offensive would fit with comments made byofficials before the Marjah operation.
"This all fits in with Obama's plan to surge 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and then set a timeline for withdrawal," she said.
"Sources were telling me this is what the plan was ... They were going to focus on 80 distinct areas and they thought if they could secure those they could connect the dots and form a 'U' around the country.
"The reason they want to do this is because they believe that could be the main economic artery, the main road that hits most of the population centres.
"They are not necessary trying to secure the whole country, just the main population centres."
A British commander said on Friday that the Helmand offensive had left Taliban fighters "disorientated".
"One of the key conclusions from what the commanders on the ground have seen is the degree of dissipation and confusion the Taliban are experiencing," Major General Gordon Messenger told reporters in London.
"There is increasing evidence that they feel under pressure and are moving out of the area.
"Insurgent activity across the area is levelling off and in some cases experiencing a bit of a lull."
However, Taliban fighters showed that they still had the ability to strike elsewhere in the country, killing at least 17 people in suicide bomb and gun attackson a number of guesthouses in the capital Kabul on Friday.
At least 10 Indians were among the dead.
SM Krishna, India's foreign minister, described the attacks as "barbaric" and a matter of "deep concern".
"These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan,'' he said in a statement.
The Indian Embassy in Kabul has been the target of two major attacks, one in July 2008 that killed more than 60 people and another last October that killed 17 people.
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