Into the Hornet’s Nest

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At the Taliban's doorstep: Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, is the spiritual homeland of the Taliban -- and one of the bloodiest arenas of the coalition's war. Since 2001, 237 coalition soldiers have been killed in action there, a death toll second only to the 421 killed in Helmand. Grim milestones have taken place in Kandahar, including the 2002 assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan's first suicide bombings in 2005. Now, military officials have named it the next battleground in defeating the Taliban, following the conclusion of the recent coalition operation in Marjah. Above, a U.S. soldier wades through an opium field on March 15 in Howz-e-Madad.

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A view from above: Kandahar's long border with Pakistan makes the city an easy crossing point for insurgents. Kandahar is also only 100 miles from Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and the suspected location of much of the Taliban's leadership. The porous border between the two countries has hindered peacekeeping efforts, and both governments have blamed the other for not stemming the flow of militants. Above, U.S. Army chaplain Carl Subler looks out over the Arghandab River near Maiwand, central Kandahar province, en route to a coalition base on March 9.

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Poppy dreams: Kandahar and its neighboring provinces of Helmand and Zabul form the major poppy belt in Afghanistan. The Afghan government outlawed the crop in 2002, but in 2009 the country produced 6,900 tons of opium just the same. The Taliban relies predominantly on money from opium distribution for funding, earning as much as $50 million off the trade in 2008. But many Afghan farmers also depend on the crop, making coalition efforts to eradicate poppy fields vastly unpopular. Above, an Afghan farmer watches as soldiers from the Afghan National Army walk through his poppy field in Kandahar province on March 14.

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Boomtown: Securing Kandahar city, the Taliban's former seat of government, is a key goal of the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy. But the greater test may be in the rural areas of the province, home to nearly two-thirds of Kandahar's population, where the Taliban is still the acting government, the only existing source of logistical support for ordinary people. The coalition forces are planning a steady buildup of forces to engage the Taliban and build up local government. But with the Taliban so enmeshed with the local population, the project is difficult and complex. Here, a perimeter wall is constructed on March 11, as part of an enlargement of Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Kandahar province.

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Building trust: Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, does not envision a "D-Day that is climatic," like with the recent offensive in Marjah, but rather "a rising tide of security." Part of this, of course, is the counterinsurgency work of building ties with Kandahar's inhabitants. Above, an Afghan Army engineer with his cell phone camera photographs an uncovered IED reported by local residents on March 14. The explosive was later detonated safely.

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Prison break: Last weekend, Kandahar city was rocked by four separate suicide bombings. At least 35 were killed and many more injured in what Kabul officials believe was an attempt to free comrades from jail. It wouldn't be the first time the Taliban has tried such a bloody rescue: In 2008, the group successfully staged a suicide bombing at Sarposa Prison in Kandahar that freed almost 1,000 prisoners, some 400 of whom were Taliban fighters. Here, U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers take a break from patrolling in the southern province of Kandahar on March 14.

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Soldier to soldier: According to a Rand study, the Afghan National Army was approximately 80,000 soldiers strong in 2009, just about the size of the 90,000-strong NATO force. But training the Afghan military and police has turned out to be one of the most formidable challenges that NATO has faced in Afghanistan. With the U.S. withdrawal date set for July 2011, it remains to be seen whether Kabul will able to adequately provide for its own security and stability once foreign troops are drawn down. Above, a U.S. soldier and a member of the Afghan National Army relax in the shade after a patrol through the village of Howz-e-Madad on March 15.

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A rising tide: Sporadic skirmishes with the Taliban have been a part of everyday life for troops in Kandahar since July 2006, when the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force first expanded its jurisdiction to include the southern region of Afghanistan. This summer's Kandahar push could either provide some respite from those attacks or weaken the coalition's position considerably. According to a senior U.S. administration official, "If our overall goal for 2010 is to reverse the momentum and gain time and space for the Afghan capacity, we have to get to Kandahar this year." Above, five U.S. soldiers walk past a cemetery after exchanging fire with Taliban forces at Howz-e-Madad in Kandahar province on March 14.

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