Dozens of British, Afghan and American soldiers died to capture and briefly hold the poor, dusty tract of northern Helmand that fell under control again this week. It was a victory celebrated in song, video and photograph on social media, even though control of Musa Qala district brings little military advantage: the triumph is mostly a propaganda one.
The blood shed in these clusters of mud houses, strung along an opium trading route, has turned it into something of a bellwether of the war, its importance only underlined by the Kabul government’s promise to win it back and a high-profile Nato-backed campaign.
It’s politically worrisome, but not militarily significant
“Musa Qala is always discussed as a strategic place, but I can’t think of anywhere less strategic,” said Michael Martin, former army officer and author of An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict. “It’s one of the most backward districts, in one of the most backward provinces, but it’s strategic for us because we decided to put ourselves there – it’s more about our national pride than it is about strategy,” he said.
At least 23 British soldiers died in operations to capture and hold Musa Qala from 2006, . In 2010, the British handed over to US forces, at least four of whom also died in the district.
When Taliban soldiers finally overran the district centre this week, they celebrated publicly, releasing a victory song on Soundcloud called Long Live Musa Qala, along with videos and still images of fighters gathered in the marketplace on pickup trucks and motorbikes. They also claimed that around 40 soldiers had been killed in the battle.
The deputy defence minister travelled to Helmand to personally oversee the operation to retake the district, spokesman Dawlat Waziri told Reuters, and Nato has bombed the district nine times since Wednesday.
Even with the Taliban officially in control, little on the ground has changed, analysts say. The insurgent group had been , and already held sway in, where dozens of British soldiers also died.
“It’s politically worrisome, but not militarily significant,” said Graeme Smith, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul of the collapse of Musa Qala. The main danger was that the town’s high profile would embolden the Taliban and threaten efforts to negotiate an end to the war.
“It’s a threat to the peace process, because if individual Taliban commanders feel like they hold more territory today than they did at the start of the fighting season, they are not going to be in a position to compromise.”
The fall of Musa Qala comes after months of creeping insurgent gains across . The Taliban have been particularly effective in northern Kunduz province, where German troops were responsible for security, and around Helmand.
Afghan forces have sustained extremely heavy casualties, with an entire company of over 70 soldiers missing after the battle for Musa Qala alone, one member of the provincial council said. But they are still fighting, and have so far managed to hang on to across the country.
“What that points towards is a war that will keep escalating as long as the west is willing to keep funding it,” said Smith. Afghanistan needs money for everything from salaries to fuel costs, as well as western support, and a meeting next year in Poland will decide on long-term Nato funding, as well as whether foreign troops will stay on to help.
Many governments looking to cut spending and worrying about other crises in the Middle East, or about waves of migration into Europe, may be looking to cut their spending in Afghanistan. The country’s recent history offers a stark lesson, though, of the risks of turning away. It was the west’s neglect of Afghanistan after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 that paved the way for the country’s collapse into a brutal civil war that bred the Taliban, and later provided Osama bin Laden with a haven where he could plot the 9/11 attacks on America.