The American-led effort to gain control of southern Afghanistan is off to a slow start and the political clock is ticking as U.S. troops head into what could be the bloodiest fight yet in the eight-year war.

The U.S. and its NATO allies last week set a goal of starting to transfer control of Afghanistan to the central government by the end of the year, and President Obama has said U.S. troops must start leaving in 2011.

But the slow pace of progress makes it less likely Obama can meet these tight deadlines, and it’s not clear if he can buy more time: He has struggled to persuade Congress to commit troops based on the current schedule.

The expanded U.S. campaign began in late winter in the small farming hamlets of Marjah, in Helmand Province, and has advanced more slowly than expected, officials said.

Now U.S. and NATO troops face a much more formidable task: securing Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and the area from which al-Qaida planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has described the campaign in Afghanistan’s south as a slowly rising tide that will require time and patience. He and other military officials also have warned of an inevitable rise in casualties.

“I think we’ve been very clear for months now that this was going to be a very difficult fight in the south, and tried to set expectations, as tragic as it is, for these losses,” Adm. Mike Mullen, Obama’s top military adviser and head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told reporters.

The drive this summer to secure Kandahar was supposed to build on the success of the much smaller Marjah operations.

But so far the U.S. and NATO haven’t achieved their goals in Marjah, military and civilian officials said, as the government has been slow to provide services and villagers have not rallied in large numbers to the Kabul-based government.

“We’re still moving forward more slowly than the people would like,” Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative, said on a trip to Marjah this month.

Source: AP

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