In Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO troops are laying the groundwork for a major offensive in the southern province of Kandahar -- the birthplace and spiritual heartland of the Taliban.
But the operation needs the backing of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, and the mercurial leader has made it clear he is less than enthusiastic about the offensive.
The Kandahar operation is expected to be the biggest military offensive in the nearly nine-year war in Afghanistan. More than 20,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops will take part. The goal is to wrest control of the city and its surrounding districts from Taliban militants and local warlords, and to install a credible government.
Gen. David Petraeus, the chief of U.S. Central Command, says Karzai's cooperation in the offensive is critical.
"The elected leader of a sovereign country and the commander in chief of his armed forces is the one who will give the go-ahead, the direction for any operation. None of these operations are unilateral; obviously it is a partnership. Neither side can move without the other," Petraeus says.
The buildup to the offensive comes during a rocky period in relations between Karzai and his Western allies. And the president has not wholly embraced the Kandahar operation. Karzai's spokesman, Wahid Omar, says there are certain conditions the president would like to see met.
"Overall, in principle, there is an agreement that this has to go on. But precondition [is] that before we start the operation, there is a plan in place as to what we do after the operations," Omar says. "It's not only about having an operation, killing the enemy; it's also about providing good governance and to make sure that it doesn't result in a consequences for the people that they don't really want."
Omar says Karzai believes the Kandahar operation needs the support of the local people. Last week, the president attended a gathering of some 1,500 tribal elders in Kandahar to see how they felt about the offensive.
Omar says the purpose of the trip was, in fact, a way to measure public support as well as encourage support for the upcoming operation.
Strong Local Concerns
But Karzai didn't get much encouragement: The tribal elders unleashed a barrage of complaints against the central government, and at one point jeered the president.
Hajee Aghalala Dastgir, the deputy head of the provincial council, says many of the tribal chiefs are concerned about civilian casualties. Dastgir says the other major concern is that U.S. and NATO troops would not stay long after the operation, which would allow the Taliban to return and seek retribution.
"If they start the operation and then leave the area, the Taliban will come back. The people who supported the new government, their lives would be in danger if the Taliban take over again," he says.
During the meeting, Karzai assured the tribal elders that he would not launch the offensive until they were happy with it. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says Karzai's statement was taken out of context.
"I honestly believe, with all due respect, that some people in [the media] made a lot more of the statement than it deserved. Of course he's going to answer the question that way. That's exactly the right answer," Holbrooke says.
Kandahar Train 'Has Left Station'
Even though the tribal chiefs don't like it, and Karzai hasn't given his full blessing, the Kandahar offensive, as one Western military official put it, has already left the station. Military commanders say "shaping" operations -- such as reaching out to residents, and military raids by U.S. special forces -- are gradually unfolding on the outskirts of Kandahar city. Western and Afghan troops will begin pushing into the city in early summer.
Petraeus says this operation is different than the one in Marjah in February, which began with a large airborne assault.
"Marjah was a bit more of a conventional military operation; it was a true clearance operation," he says. The Kandahar operation, on the other hand, Petraeus says, is as much about politics -- tribal relationships, inclusivity and transparency.
And that means ensuring that the Kandahar offensive has the backing of the local government -- and the Afghan president.