Development News from Afghanistan

Just another WordPress.com weblog

What Next for Musa Qala?

leave a comment »

International forces and the Afghan army see the recapture of a small town in Helmand as a major victory, but holding onto it could prove more problematic.

Institute for War & Peace Reporting

By Jean MacKenzie in Kabul, with Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Ilyas Dayee in Helmand (ARR No. 277, 12-Dec-07)

Musa Qala, a dusty and battered little town in northern Helmand, has somehow acquired the symbolic status reserved for major turning points in military conflicts.

Official spin and media hype have billed the battle for Musa Qala in recent days as something akin to the Taleban’s Last Stand. The general impression is that the insurgents have now been driven out of most of their strongholds.

But the picture on the ground is rather different.

While an attack group that included the Afghan National Army, ANA, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, United States Special Forces and powerful air support has succeeded in chasing some 2,000 Taleban fighters out of the town, holding onto the area over the longer term may be a bit more difficult than the government is now predicting.

The Taleban still control huge swathes of Helmand province. They dominate major districts such as Greshk, Sangin, and Garmseer, aside from islands of government control in the district centres.

Losing Musa Qala is not likely to be a death blow to the insurgents. The renewed fighting, with the attendant displacement of families and damage to property, may in fact further inflame local passions against the Afghan government and its foreign allies.

Musa Qala’s residents may not have wholeheartedly embraced the repressive rule they have lived under since the Taleban took over their town in February, but their trust in the government and the foreign forces seems to have reached an all-time low.

“I am very upset about all this fighting,” said one resident, Sarwar Khan, speaking by phone with IWPR. “The Taleban were much better than this. At least things were calm.

“I think that this time, the foreigners just want to kill civilians, innocent civilians, like they have done before … people are going to hate them more and more. People already hate them. And I am sure that they will leave again; they will just abandon Musa Qala and leave us with the Taleban.”

Even more vehement was Maliha, a woman who had to leave her home in the Takhtapul area of Musa Qala because of the fighting, and is staying with her son-in-law in Greshk.

“God damn these Americans!” she said.

Like many Afghans, Maliha does not distinguish between the nationalities of the various international contingents, and cares little that the bulk of the attacking force was British, along with Danish, Slovak and American troops.

“What do they want from us? We had just got used to living in a calm environment, and now we again have to move and suffer this misery,” she said.

However, there were also people who welcomed the fact that the town had changed hands.

“I am very happy that the Taleban have left Musa Qala,” said Najibullah, a resident of the village of Chenai. “Now we will have schools, development and a better life. The Taleban used to behead people on charges of spying, and I was frightened. But now I am happy, even though there is fighting and bombing.”

The provincial government is keen to reassure the population that it intends to stay, and governor Assadullah Wafa has pledged immediate large-scale assistance.

“I will rebuild Musa Qala as an example to other districts of Helmand,” he told reporters on December 12. “We are declaring an amnesty for all. People should go home and resume their lives. My first act will be to establish a school, rebuild the road, repair the ruined houses and build a central mosque. I will spend billions in Musa Qala.”

People in the district are not easily swayed by such pledges.

“They always promise assistance but we never see any of it,” said one Musa Qala resident, who did not want to be named. “We don’t need their assistance; we just want them to stop killing us.”

Gul Mohammad, also of Musa Qala, agreed, adding, “Yesterday evening, five of my friends and I were heading for the district centre. We have shops there and we wanted to rescue our property. We came under fire and four of my friends were killed. I and one other man escaped, leaving our friends’ bodies behind.”

According to Gul Mohammad, many shops in the district centre were being looted by ANA soldiers.

Abdul Wadood Nejrabi, an ANA officer, denied that Afghan soldiers were misbehaving in Musa Qala.

“These charges that army troops are firing on civilians are baseless,” he said. “And there has been no looting at all. Anyone who says this is part of the opposition.”

Gul Mohammad is angry at the death of his friends, and unlikely to be appeased by promises of aid.

“I heard the government on the radio saying they’d help us,” he said bitterly. “But we don’t want their help. We are not going to forget our dead just because they give us a plate of food.”

Despite the governor’s pleas for a return to normal, it will not be easy to persuade residents to come back, at least until they are convinced that the fighting has stopped.

“There is no one in the town – everyone has left,” said a Musa Qala resident who did not want to be named. “We are living in the desert with all our belongings. We don’t even know who is in the town – the British or the government. All I know is that a friend of mine was riding his motorbike yesterday evening and they shot him. He was wounded in the leg, and there are no doctors to treat him, and no hospitals.”

Even though the bombardment of Musa Qala has ceased, there have been further clashes throughout the province. On December 12, there were reports of fighting between insurgents and the Taleban in the village of Berana, just six kilometers from Musa Qala.

Thousands of families have left their homes and are in need of help, especially given the cold winter weather. But with so many people on the move, it will be difficult for the government to reach them all.

“Three days ago we formed an emergency commission,” said Mohammad Omar Qanai, head of the provincial department for rural reconstruction and development. “Along with UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan] and the PRT [joint military-civilian Provincial Reconstruction Team] we will be able to provide assistance for 2,000 families. This will include medicine, food, and shelter.”

At present, people are doing whatever they can to stay safe and get out of the cold.

“For several days now, people have been coming from Musa Qala,” said one resident of Sangin district. “I myself have opened my home to 13 families. I’m about to go mad from the noise of the children. Thank God they didn’t bring their livestock, or I would have left altogether. I hope the government gives them emergency aid as soon as possible.”

Provincial police chief Mohammad Hossain Andiwal sounded confident that the problems would be short-lived.

“Musa Qala is [back] in government’s hands after 11 months, and we will sort everything out as soon as possible,” he told reporters on December 11.

Musa Qala passed into Taleban hands in early February, when a controversial truce broke down. In October, 2006, British forces agreed to withdraw from Musa Qala as long as the Taleban also pledged to stay out of the district. The British had been bogged down in heavy fighting in the area, and were sustaining major losses.

But the deal, which was supposed to be enforced by tribal elders, collapsed in the wake of mutual accusations of truce violations, including an ISAF air strike that killed the brother of a prominent Taleban commander. In February, the Taleban moved in and set up their own government, which maintained a precarious peace for ten-and-a-half months.

For the international forces based in Helmand, Musa Qala acquired what Britain’s defence secretary Des Browne termed “iconic” importance. The British had been criticised for the original agreement, and the Taleban’s dominance of the district rankled.

Once an attack was launched, it was only a matter of time before the insurgents were routed, as they could not withstand a full-frontal assault backed by air power.

But given the current mood of the population, and the Taleban’s well-known practice of melting away only to regroup and return, the Musa Qala saga may not be over yet.

The foreign troops cannot resist us,” boasted Abdul Rahman, a local Taleban commander. “I swear I have never seen such cowards. We can’t even get a good fight out of them. They are not worth our efforts. They disappear when we fire on them, while our mujaheddin will never lose their morale.”

Brave words aside, the Taleban did not put up much of a fight for Musa Qala. According to spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, they staged a tactical retreat in order to spare civilians.

“We were worried that the foreigners would bomb the district,” he told IWPR.

ISAF did use artillery and air strikes, despite the early Taleban withdrawal. An ISAF spokesman in Kabul assured journalists on December 11 that all possible care had been taken to minimise civilian casualties.

Interviews with people from the district reflected the terror caused by the battle.

“I swear I will never forget my little daughter’s screams,” said Zmarai, from the village of Chenai. “She was scared to death of the bombs. There was blood coming out of my son’s ears.

“I just want one side or the other to control Musa Qala. The government or the Taleban – I don’t care.”

IWPR has received several reports from Musa Qala of collapsed buildings, dead bodies that cannot be moved because of the fighting, and civilians caught in the crossfire. Many people mentioned a figure of 40 dead, but this has yet to be substantiated.

“Every single place has been bombed,” said Mohammad Gul, a resident of Toughi village. “I cannot go out, so I don’t know how many people are dead. But a missile landed on my neighbour’s house, killing his five-year-old daughter and his cow.”

Other reports from the village of Nabo Aka suggested that 28 civilians died in just one air strike.

But ISAF and the Afghan government insist there were few civilian casualties. The Afghan defence ministry said there were four, while ISAF said there had been none.

According to ISAF spokesman Brigadier-General Carlos Branco, two NATO soldiers were killed by landmines, and there were no reported ANA casualties. No one would speculate on Taleban losses, although they were rumoured to be heavy.

The governor said that many of the insurgent fighters in Musa Qala were not Afghans.

“I had been insisting that there were foreign Taleban in Musa Qala, and we saw that this was the case,” Wafa told reporters. “There were foreign Taleban, and Taleban from North Waziristan [in Pakistan]. Most of them are dead now. In the near future, we will launch an operation in districts adjacent to Musa Qala.”

Washir, to the immediate west of Musa Qala, and Nawzad to the north are largely under Taleban control.

The governor assured people that they had nothing to fear.

“I do not accept that people are worried we will not be able to hold the district this time,” he said. “I am going to make sure this does not happen. The army and the foreign forces will remain there until the police are able to ensure security.”

Jean MacKenzie is IWPR’s programme director in Afghanistan. Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Ilyas Dayee are IWPR staff reporters in Helmand. Their colleague Aziz Ahmad Shafe also contributed to this report.

Advertisements

Written by afghandevnews

December 15, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Posted in Security

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: