The US-led forces in Afghanistan have begun one of the most ambitious missions in the new “surge” strategy as they attempt to pacify what some call the Taliban’s “heart of darkness,” the Zhari district.  The fight will attempt to liberate an area so dangerous that the Soviets bypassed it during their long occupation of the country, and where Mullah Omar launched his bloody, oppressive regime.  The key part of the fight will be convincing locals that NATO and the Afghan government can win it and hold the district:

U.S. forces launched a major operation in southern Afghanistan early Wednesday in the district that gave birth to the Taliban movement, in what could be one of the most important offensives of the war.

Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops encircled and swooped into a belt of lush farm land in Zhari district, a sanctuary and staging post for the Taliban just west of Kandahar city known to foreign soldiers as “the heart of darkness.” Key insurgent-held villages such as Mukuan, Pashmul and Singesar are the target, areas essentially untouched by coalition forces since they entered Afghanistan in 2001. …

The goal is to demonstrate to the terrorized people of Zhari that the insurgents are not invincible and that there is an alternative, the Afghan government, which is capable of providing them with security, said Captain Brant Auge, commander of a company of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, based at combat outpost Asheqeh, just east of Mukuan village, the biggest insurgent nest in the far east of Zhari.

This is the essence of the war, perhaps not even in microcosm.  Just as in Iraq, people in villages like Mukuan align themselves with the Taliban not just because they agree with their oppressors (although some may), but because they have no other choice.  Perhaps especially in Mukuan and in the Zhari district, they have not ever been offered another choice, not by the Soviets, and not by NATO — until now.  They have lived in quiet oppression and desperation, and the utter lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan ensured their isolation.

Militarily, NATO should dominate Zhari once they set their sights on it, at least long enough to drive the Taliban out of the area.  The key will come after the military victory.  NATO and the Karzai government will have to hold Zhari and instill confidence in the local populace that the change is permanent.  Our surge will have to remain in place long enough for that to take place — and a drawdown in ten months is probably too soon for a successful transition.

If we want to win the war, we have to take the fight to the Taliban as NATO has done today in Zhari.  We have to leave no haven for the radicals, and liberate those who want to live in peace and freedom.  But we are making a promise in doing so, and if we want to actually win against radical extremist Islamists in this region, we had better make good on that promise.