WASHINGTON – The current offensive in Marjah is a critical stepping stone for what is likely the most important fight of the Afghan surge in the coming months: securing Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and the most important city in southern Afghanistan, according to defense officials and analysts.

The military is using the Marjah offensive to destroy an important Taliban safe haven, but also to test a strategy that emphasizes strong partnership with Afghan security forces and security for Afghan civilians. And some of the same techniques will be used in future offenses like securing Kandahar.

Defense officials are understandably reluctant to speak in much depth about their plans for follow-up offensives, but there is no doubt that Kandahar will be the military’s primary objective this year.

”Kandahar remains the prize for the Taliban,” a senior military official said. ”So if we do anything in the future, clearly this southern capital has to be in our plans somewhere.”

Military officials argue they need to wrest Kandahar from the influence of the Taliban – or more precisely help the Afghan government take control.

”We must turn Kandahar into a city that thrives economically and make it a place where the people of the city and the surrounding districts feel confident in their government and not afraid of the Taliban,” said the senior military official.

Analysts say the U.S. is likely to begin stepping up operations around Kandahar in earnest by the spring or early summer. But before the military can make that push it must eliminate the safe havens in neighboring Helmand province including, most importantly, Marjah.

Insurgents have operated relatively unchallenged for years in Marjah, which has developed into a key command and control center for Taliban fighters. It also became a refuge for Taliban militants in Helmand province and other parts of southern Afghanistan.

”Kandahar city is eventually the key place you are going to want to control,” said Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. ”But you can’t do that having a sanctuary for the Taliban in Helmand.”

Marjah is a critical test for the commander of allied forces, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s, new strategy. The military is seeking to break militants’ hold on Marjah by making the population feel secure enough to stand up to the Taliban. Defense officials say what really must work with the Marjah offensive – in large part because it will be even more important in Kandahar – is the partnership with the Afghan government.

Senior U.S. commanders have concluded that they have done a poor job in the past involving the Afghan government and forces in operations. That has resulted in half-hearted Afghan support for initiatives, or even actively opposing them. Although the Afghan forces on the ground in Marjah have focused on searching houses, military officials insist the Afghan involvement is real and not window dressing. Defense officials have repeatedly highlighted the role of President Hamid Karzai, local officials and Afghan commanders in shaping the operation’s plans.

”This war is about getting the Afghans to buy into everything we believe needs to happen said the senior officer. ”In fact, if they don’t believe something should happen, we probably won’t do it.”