KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When the U.S. and Afghan militaries launch their long-awaited Kandahar operation as early as this weekend, the key to its success may lie in some obscure mountain roads that connect the dusty heartland of the Taliban insurgency with a fertile valley nearby.
One is the "Ant pass," a rocky, windswept passage through which Taliban fighters shuttled in and out of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, to attack U.S. convoys, assassinate Afghan government officials, plant roadside bombs and target international development offices.
After a series of frustrating delays, American and Afghan forces aim to transform this narrow gateway into a crucial choke point on the eve of the initial showdown in the fertile Arghandab Valley, which stretches out below the pass.
With U.S. soldiers keeping watch, specially trained Afghan police officers stand alongside towering new concrete barriers that divide the two-lane highway that runs from the Arghandab into one of Kandahar's more Taliban-friendly neighborhoods.
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In the coming days, hundreds of Afghan fighters and American soldiers will descend on the Arghandab in an attempt to push an estimated 150 to 200 Taliban militants out of the valley's network of vineyards and pomegranate groves.
The long-anticipated battle, a campaign that's expected to last about two weeks, will be the first serious test for U.S. and Afghan forces in Kandahar this summer. If the Taliban can be chased out of the Arghandab and kept out, the joint forces will turn toward battling militants in even more dangerous parts of Kandahar province to the south and west.
The battle for Kandahar originally was envisaged as a confrontation that could cripple Taliban fighters and compel their leaders to cut a peace deal with U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
However, unforeseen delays and setbacks have forced the international military coalition to re-evaluate its plans. That, in turn, has cast doubt on President Barack Obama's pledge to begin scaling back the military operation next July.
Negotiations over which companies would provide the cement delayed construction of the checkpoint, and land disputes have held up plans to establish a key checkpoint on an alternative route into the Arghandab, a delay that could give Taliban fighters an escape route.
While the specially trained police who are responsible for the new checkpoints are considered a cut above the conventional and widely disparaged Afghan police, U.S. soldiers say they need constant oversight.
Amid criticism from U.S. politicians worried about the pace of the war in a congressional election year, Western strategists pumped thousands of coalition forces into Kandahar to help their Afghan counterparts create a "rising tide of security."
The ring of checkpoints is the most visible manifestation of the military plans.
Though the security web is incomplete, NATO's top military strategists are betting that the checkpoints will frustrate Taliban attackers trying to hit Kandahar and force them out of the Arghandab.
"I think we will discover that this will piss the insurgency off," said British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan. "The dynamics are going to be interesting. I think you will find how we progress in southeastern Arghandab . . . will be an indicator of whether or not this project is going to work."
NATO strategists are building about 17 checkpoints on the routes leading from Kandahar into the districts around the city where the Taliban built their power base.
The Taliban already have turned their sights on the security ring. On July 13, suicide bombers targeted the main Afghan police compound in Kandahar that's responsible for the checkpoints. The sophisticated attack killed three American soldiers, an Afghan police officer and three Afghan interpreters.
"That security ring is a filter," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, the director of NATO operations in southern Afghanistan. "It's not a ring of steel. It's not a defensive belt. It's a filter to separate insurgents from the population. And there's no doubt in my mind that the enemy is going to come after these things, because they have been very effective."
The problems Hodges has faced setting up the checkpoints are emblematic of the broader challenge in Kandahar.
It took far longer than expected to train and deploy the Afghan soldiers and police officers who are taking part in the Kandahar campaign, and military officials were dragged into local land disputes and protracted contract talks as they set out to build the checkpoints.
"I failed to anticipate how long it would take to get concrete," Hodges said. "We've got nine different contractors delivering T-walls. And land ownership is an absolute mystical science here."
For now, traffic flowing out of Kandahar through Ant Pass can back up for up to two hours as Afghan police, with U.S. soldiers looking on, inspect as many as 1,700 cars, trucks, motorcycles and auto rickshaws.
On a recent afternoon, cars heading out of Kandahar cut in front of listing trucks, and motorcyclists inched up the gritty pass toward the checkpoint.
On the opposite side, traffic from Arghandab ran smoothly as Afghan police waved through the trickle of vehicles on the road that runs into one of the most unstable, Taliban-friendly districts in Kandahar city.
One police officer sat in the shade of a building until his commander turned up with a McClatchy reporter.
"Stand up," the commander shouted to the police officer. "They're journalists. They're taking pictures."
In short order, the police officers began stopping every vehicle that was coming from Arghandab.
Besides choking off Taliban routes into Kandahar, the checkpoints are designed to persuade Afghans that the arrival of U.S.-trained forces will end endemic police corruption.
With American military mentors looking on, Afghanistan's elite police force, made up of newly trained and better-educated officers from outside Kandahar, has taken charge of inspections at the new checkpoints.
So far, there've been no reports of the new officers demanding bribes from drivers, said Army Capt. Steven J. Davis, 26, of Lansing, Mich., who's stationed in Kandahar city with the 82nd Airborne Division's 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, from Fort Bragg, N.C.
Even if there appear to be few problems with highway robbery, members of the larger Afghan police force still man their own checkpoints a few hundred yards past the U.S.-monitored ones.
"I suspect that the (Afghan National Police) are quietly trying to create another checkpoint around the corner so that their income isn't too disrupted," said Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan.
"It's a systemic issue," Carter said. "We won't change it, but if we can buy time for the people to think their government is generally trying to support them, then we might get them to work in this direction, as well."
When that might happen and, more critically, whether it will happen in time to meet Obama's timeline for withdrawing American forces, is unknown, however.
"When they will have that trust and confidence is intangible," said Davis, who was on the Kandahar base when the Taliban attacked it July 13. "No one knows. It's a feeling. When you live and breathe in Kandahar city and you wake up one morning and feel safe — you will know."
Follow Afghanistan developments at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul.