NEW YORK Elite American Special Operations forces are picking off insurgents to weaken the Taliban, with the looming battle for Kandahar shaping up as the pivotal test of President Barack Obamas Afghanistan strategy, The New York Times reported Monday. The key battle, The Times said, will also determine how much the United States can count on the countrys leaders and military for support, and whether a possible increase in civilian casualties from heavy fighting will compromise a strategy that depends on winning over the Afghan people. The report about American forces intense operations in Kandahar coincided with a warning from an Afghanistan official that President Hamid Karzai will not allow foreign troops to move against the Taliban in Kandahar unless they guarantee that civilians will be protected and governance pushed into target areas. NATO and US troops have been waging operations against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar for the past few months, following a major offensive against rebels in Marjah, in neighbouring Helmand province. Waheed Omar, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, was quoted by the media as saying that the Marjah push launched on February 13 and billed as the biggest NATO operation against the Taliban since 2001 was a pilot operation to learn how to combine military and political efforts to win public support. The Times dispatch the battle for Kandahar will follow the Marja offensive, which is showing mixed results. And it will require the United States and its Afghan partners to navigate a battleground that is not only much bigger than Marja but also militarily, politically and culturally more complex. Two months after the Marja offensive, Afghan officials acknowledge that the Taliban have in some ways retaken the momentum there, including killing or beating locals allied with the central government and its American backers. We are still waiting to see the outcome in Marja, said Shaida Abdali, the deputy Afghan national security adviser. If you are planning for operations in Kandahar, you must show success in Marja. You have to be able to point to something. Now you dont have a good example to point to there. The battle for Kandahar has become the make-or-break offensive of the eight-and-half-year war, The Times said. The question is whether military force, softened with appeals to the local populace, can overcome a culture built on distrust of outsiders, including foreign forces and even neighboring tribes. Instead of the quick punch that opened the Marja offensive, the operation in Kandahar, a sprawling urban area, is designed to be a slowly rising tide of military action. the newspaper said. That is why the opening salvos of the offensive are being carried out in the shadows by Special Operations forces. Large numbers of insurgent leadership based in and around Kandahar have been captured or killed, said one senior American military officer directly involved in planning the Kandahar offensive. But, he acknowledged, its still a contested battle space. Senior American and allied commanders say the goal is to have very little visible American presence inside Kandahar city itself, with that effort carried by Afghan Army and police units. Stepped up bombings and attacks against foreign contractors, moderate religious leaders and public officials are viewed as proof that Taliban insurgents are trying to send a message to Afghan tribal leaders not to cooperate with the American offensive, it said. Last Monday night, gunmen killed Azizullah Yarmal, the deputy mayor of Kandahar, as he prayed in a mosque in the city. American and NATO officials are not eager to speak publicly about one of their biggest challenges: the effect of the continued presence of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan presidents brother and head of the Kandahar provincial council, whose suspected links with drug dealers and insurgents have prompted some Western officials to say that corruption and governance problems have led locals to be more accepting of the Taliban. the dispatch said. And while allied officials say they will be relying heavily on Afghan forces to take the lead in securing the city, that same tactic has so far produced mixed success in Marja, where Marine Corps officers said they ended up doing much of the hard fighting. To shape the arrangement of allied forces ahead of the fight, conventional troops have begun operations outside of Kandahar, in a series of provincial districts that ring the city, it said. American and allied officers predict heavy pockets of fighting in those belts. Kandahar, according to a senior military officer, is infested with insurgents, but not overrun as was Marja.