Afghan town bathed in British blood once more at Taliban's mercy

Musa Qala, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment (OMLT-1) prepare to leave their base on a foot patrol around the town
Musa Qala, Soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment (OMLT-1) prepare to leave their base on a foot patrol around the town in 2008  Photo: JULIAN SIMMONDS/TELEGRAPH

For a town that more than 20 British soldiers died to protect, Musa Qala has not much to offer. A shabby, sunbaked place in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, its people still live as they did generations ago: growing poppies, and quietly trading in opium.

Yet less than a year on from the withdrawal of British soldiers from Helmand, the one aspect of life in Musa Qala that they fought to banish looks like returning. The Taliban - for whom the town's opium riches have long made it a key prize - are back.

In a night-time assault last month, heavily-armed militants swept in from the surrounding hills, killing 17 Afghan officers in an outlying police station and ransacking the town centre.

Not only are they back: with the war showing no sign of fading away, the Taliban look set to be rewarded with peace talks and a share in government.

Taliban militans sit on their vehicle as they arrive in the town of Musa Qala, southern of Helmand province, 2007

On Wednesday, Mullah Omar, their one-eyed leader, backed the imminent negotiations. "Concurrently with armed jihad, political endeavours and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals are a legitimate Islamic principle," he said in a statement.

• Taliban flee as troops retake Musa Qala
British and Afghan troops retake Musa Qala

All over Afghanistan, the Taliban are assaulting strongholds once made secure at the expense of the lives and limbs of thousands of British, American and other soldiers from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf).

Nowhere is that truer than in Musa Qala, scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the nine-year British stint in Helmand from 2005-2014.

When the town was wrested from Taliban control in December 2007, after a major operation involving 4,000 British, American and Afghan soldiers, the then prime minister Gordon Brown hailed it as a major breakthrough.

It heralded an end to the days when locals who defied their Taliban rulers were strung up on makeshift gibbets.

The British in Musa Qala
26 Jan 2006
John Reid, then Defence Secretary, announces Britain will send more than 3,300 troops to Helmand as Nato forces push into southern Afghanistan.
24 Apr 2006
Mr Reid says: “We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot because our job is to protect the reconstruction.”
18 May 2006
Taliban assault on Musa Qala district centre kills 20 Afghan policemen. Unit of nearby British troops sent to help.
Summer 2006
Temporary mission becomes the siege of Musa Qala. British and Danish troops fight off hundreds of Taliban. Combat so heavy that Chinook helicopters often cannot resupply troops.
October 2006
British commanders make a deal with the Taliban. Both sides will leave the town in the hands of neutral local elders. British troops withdraw.
02 Feb 2007
Taliban renege on the deal and retake the town.
07 Dec 2007
British and Afghans launch Operation Snakebite to retake Musa Qala
Summer 2009
British admit they are overstretched and have been fought to a stalemate in Helmand. Barack Obama says thousands more US Marines will be sent.
March 2010
British hand over Musa Qala to US Marines.
26 Oct 2014
British and American troops leave Helmand.
June 2015
Heavy fighting sees Taliban temporarily overrun parts of Musa Qala centre.

"If we can succeed there, then we can move forward in Afghanistan in favour of a more peaceful future for this country," he told troops during a visit to Camp Bastion, Britain's main Helmand base.

Seven years on, in a mirror image, the assault on Musa Qala is a symptom of a resurgent Taliban.

In Helmand, gunmen have seized the northern Baghran district, and are menacing Kajaki and Sangin, two other areas British troops fought tooth and nail to defend. They have also gained turf outside of their traditional southern strongholds, seizing two districts in Kunduz in the north-east.

"Musa Qala looks like it will fall to the Taliban soon," warned Haji Mira Jan, 60, a Musa Qala tribal leader, who laments the days of the Western presence.

Soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment on a foot patrol from their base in Musa Qala in 2008

"Everybody lives in fear here now, and government officials keep their fingers on their triggers, even if they walk in the central town of the district. There aren't more than fifty Taliban fighters in Musa Qala - the problem is that Afghan forces do not really try to secure the district."

With religiously conservative tribes and a lucrative position in the opium trade, Musa Qala has always been hostile to outsiders. Even so, British Paras were still taken aback by the ferocity they encountered when they first set up an outpost in 2006.

A 52-day Taliban siege ensued, and while British troops held out, the outpost dubbed "The Alamo" was eventually abandoned as too exposed.

In the following years, Musa Qala became a petri dish for every kind of counter-insurgency strategy, from brute force and hearts-and-minds through to complex tribal diplomacy.

In 2007, a deal handing security to local tribes on condition they kept the Taliban out fell apart when 2,000 militants swarmed in. Following a major battle to retake the town that December, the British launched a charm offensive, building schools, roads and water wells, even running an anti-Taliban radio station that broadcast popular Bollywood songs.

Graffiti left behind by Taliban fighters remains on the walls of a compound in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province

But despite more than a decade of Western training, the Afghan security forces that took over from Isaf have struggled to hold their own.

Not only does the Afghan army lack air power - an option that gave their Western counterparts the upper hand - it still suffers from corruption, logistical problems and low morale. Its troops are as steeped in their country's warrior culture as any other Afghans, but they are under-fed, under-armed and under-paid.

British soldiers and diplomats who served in Afghanistan see comparisons with Iraq, where the Western-trained army melted away before last year's onslaught by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“The parallel is always the moment the foreign troops leave," said William Patey, who served as Britain's ambassador to both Baghdad and Kabul. "When we go, the dynamic changes because we are no longer the biggest tribe in town."

Dan Jarvis, an ex-Parachute Regiment officer who is now a Labour MP, visited as a soldier in 2005 to help plan Britain’s deployment, and again in 2006 and 2007.

A young Afghan boy tries to see Prime Minister Gordon Brown during his visoit Musa Qala, Afghanistan

“Musa Qala had strategic importance because it represented the crux of our battle with the Taliban," he said. "There are very real concerns about the ability of the Afghan security forces to check the advances of the Taliban and that’s something we should really be worried about, although I don't think all is lost yet."

Nicholas Heysom, the UN's envoy to Afghanistan, recently insisted Afghan forces were "demonstrating resilience", yet other studies presented to the UN tell a different story. In February, it said 2014 was the deadliest year for civilians since 2009, with nearly 3,700 people killed.

Michael Keating, associate director at Chatham House and a former UN official in Afghanistan, said the question was whether the current violence marked the start of a descent into chaos, or a Taliban power play ahead of coming to the negotiating table.

"This is the first year that the Taliban have had a chance to properly test out the Afghan security forces now that they are operating on their own," he said.

Either way, Musa Qala will remain a weather-vane for the country's future, while for the families of soldiers who died defending it, there will be little cheer that the "biggest tribe in town" might once again be the Taliban.

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Source : telegraph[dot]co[dot]uk
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