The Problem of Musa Qala: Afghanistan's Terror University Town
The spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense, Zahir Azimi, recently said that Musa Qala, located in the Helmand district is a center for foreign terrorists who receive training and instructions for attacks against international forces. In his speech, Azimi said the terrorists, mostly Al Qaeda members who cross the Afghan-Pakistan border come from a variety of countries and regions.
The open and porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is one of the most important reasons Helmand became a center for terrorism was the, according to a report by Abdulwahid Karezwal, member of the Afghan senate representing the Helmand region.
He also charged that local authorities and influential figures actively helped permit terrorists start their activities. The Karzai government has, with the help of British troops, only five kilometers under its control among the thirteen districts of the Helmand province.
Negotiations between British troops and local figures raised hopes the problem would be solved, but the drawn-out negotiations have also given the Taliban time and opportunity to reinforce and increase their forces on various fronts. The Times Online reported on the agreement in October, 2006.
Over the past two months British soldiers have come under sustained attack defending a remote mud-walled government outpost in the town of Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan. Eight have been killed there. It has now been agreed the troops will quietly pull out of Musa Qala in return for the Taliban doing the same. ...
Although soldiers on the ground may welcome the agreement, it is likely to raise new questions about troop deployment. Last month Sir Richard Dannatt, the new head of the British Army, warned that soldiers in Afghanistan were fighting at the limit of their capacity and could only "just" cope with the demands.
Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of the British taskforce, flew into Musa Qala 18 days ago, guarded only by his military police close-protection team, to attend a shura, or council of town elders, to negotiate a withdrawal. Butler was taken in a convoy to the shura in the desert southeast of Musa Qala where the carefully formulated proposals were made. The British commander said that he was prepared to back a "cessation of fighting" if they could guarantee that the Taliban would also leave. ... there are concerns that the Taliban could simply use the "cessation of fighting" to regroup and attack again next year.
By October 30, 2007 it was clear the "cessation of fighting" had not taken place. Fighting broke out anew as the Taliban returned to Musa Qala. Afgha.com reported:
The Musa Qala dilemma has been ongoing since this time last year, after the British and Danish contingent stationed in the district center handed security over to local tribal elders in exchange for a ceasefire with local Taliban units. By early 2007, the Coalition hammered the Taliban leadership in northern Helmand, killing four regional commanders within as many weeks.
The Taliban responded by seizing the district headquarters, Musa Qala City, and laid down the law with an iron fist. Spies were 'tried' by a Taliban court and found guilty of providing intelligence to the western forces operating in the region. At least 3 such 'spies' were summarily executed in April. Heavy taxes and ardent rules were imposed on the locals. Taliban sympathizers welcomed the reinstalled Taliban government while others remained adamantly against it.
Nine months after the Taliban took the district, Coalition forces are moving deeper into the district ... five major engagements have occurred in the district since September, leaving an estimated 250 militants killed. Most of the recent fighting has been several kilometers south of the city in a rugged valley known as the Musa Qala Wadi.
The latest attack, however, occurred on the outskirts of the Musa Qala city itself. Coalition and Afghan forces have encircled the city leaving the densely populated town fearful of an imminent assault by US, British and Afghan forces.
The city center is still thought to be heavily booby-trapped, something the Taliban rigged up after storming the city back in February. Afghan army officials are in contact with local elders trying to persuade them to have the Taliban surrender or flee. Local officials also indicate foreign fighters are operating suicide bomb training camps in and around Musa Qala; and that Pakistani, Arab, Chechen and Central Asian fighters are thought to make up this core of mercenaries.
Although developments in Helmand were criticized at the time of the British-negotiated "cessation of fighting" nobody expected the area to become a central training ground for terrorists.
Nine months after the agreement between British troops and Taliban, the spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense raised the question of who was to blame for the situation of the Helmand province that turned it into a foreign terrorist's center. At the center of the debate is the policy toward the Taliban, questions which intensified when the British defense minister backed comprehensive negotiations with the Taliban. The Guardian reported on Oct 15, 2007:
British officials have concluded that the Taliban is too deep-rooted to be eradicated by military means. Following a wide-ranging policy review accompanying Gordon Brown's arrival in Downing Street, a decision was taken to put a much greater focus on courting "moderate" Taliban leaders as well as "tier two" footsoldiers, who fight more for money and out of a sense of tribal obligation than for the Taliban's ideology. Such a shift has put Britain and the Karzai government at odds with hawks in Washington, who are wary of Whitehall's enthusiasm for talks with what they see as a monolithic terrorist group. But a British official said: "Some Americans are coming around to our way of seeing this."
Despite the setbacks the advocates of negotiated settlement have not give up hope. The Daily Telegraph reported:
Diplomats confirmed yesterday that Mullah Salaam was expected to change sides within days. He is a former Taliban corps commander and governor of Herat province under the government that fell in 2001. Military sources said British forces in the province are "observing with interest" the potential deal in north Helmand, which echoes the efforts of US commanders in Iraq's western province to split Sunni tribal leaders from their al-Qaeda allies.
The Afghan deal would see members of the Alizai tribe around the Taliban-held town of Musa Qala quit the insurgency and pledge support to the Afghan government. It would be the first time that the Kabul government and its Western allies have been able exploit tribal divisions that exist within the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
Whether that approach works any better than the earlier "cessation of fighting" remains to be seen.
Nasim Fekrat blogs at Afghan Lord