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The battle for Musa Qala: the war in a microcosm


In early December, NATO and American troops led an assault aimed at retaking the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala, in Afghanistan‘s Helmand province. While the operation was hailed as a success by NATO leaders, a closer look reveals a familiar but seldom-discussed story of American air strikes, civilian casualties, Afghan police corruption and the inability of foreign and Afghan troops to hold strategic ground.

 

 

The Setting

 

Musa Qala (meaning ‘Fortress of Moses’) is a town of some 15,000 people in northern Helmand province and is the administrative center for the district of the same name. Located on a small tributary of the Helmand River, it lacks the strategic importance of more riverine Helmand towns like Sangin and Kajaki. Significantly, however, Musa Qala sits on the edge of the plains next to the highlands – the foothills of the Hindu Kush – where the writ of the Afghan government is almost non-existent. In this context, the town’s symbolic importance becomes evident, as Pashtun tradition holds that the plains are areas of government control, whereas the mountains are the home of independent tribes. The year-long Taliban occupation of Musa Qala was a signal that the insurgency had reached a new stage and was spreading out from its early strongholds in the mountains.

 

The district center of Musa Qala, which includes the town of Musa Qala and outlying villages, gained some notoriety last year as the focus of a controversial policy carried out by British NATO forces. Though Washington opposed the deal, in October of 2006, British officers forged an agreement with local tribal elders in which the elders would strive to keep Taliban insurgents out of the district. In exchange Afghan government troops and their NATO tutors, who were suffering heavy casualties, agreed to pull out too. It is unclear how much the British were motivated by face-saving – seeking to get their troops out of a desperate situation without admitting defeat. Some reports claim that Taliban fighters essentially flooded the town shortly after NATO made their exit.

 

Whatever the circumstances of the arrangement, it lasted only until February 2007 when it was broken under ambiguous circumstances. From then until December 7, Taliban commanders claimed dominion in Musa Qala while NATO and Afghan forces kept their distance. For the local population, the regime change brought with it a Taliban-appointed police chief, shariah courts, taxation for the jihad, and a shutdown of government-run schools (some of which were replaced with madrassas). According to scattered reports from the Taliban-controlled town, the movement avoided some of the extremes of their previous rule in Afghanistan. Men without turbans were spotted by journalists and the Taliban’s radio station played music between speeches and prayers.

 

Thus, for almost a year Taliban fighters had a safe haven in the town, undoubtedly using it as a staging ground for their attacks elsewhere in the region. And while NATO’s spokespeople want us to believe this is all the work of "Taliban foreign fighters," in fact the movement relies to a large extent on local elites for support (or at least tolerance) in areas where the insurgents dominate. In Musa Qala, it is said that a main pillar of support for the Taliban comes from a subtribe of the Alizai, known as the Pirzai Alizai. Rumours surfaced in November that the Pirzai leader, Mullah Salaam, was plotting to change horses and side with the Afghan government rather than the Taliban. While one report states that media attention caused Mullah Salaam to back out of the deal, most say that he did change sides, thus ushering in Operation Snake.

 

Also beginning in November, reports emerged of British forces preparing to retake the area, as NATO officers had long promised. By the end of that month, terrified civilians had largely left the area. Journalists with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting claimed that three quarters of Musa Qala’s residents had evacuated, leaving behind only those who were too poor to leave. Similarly, the Telegraph relates:

 

    There are signs that some people have decided to stay because of the fear of looting when the town falls.

 

    "Outside I can hear the sounds of explosions. We are quite scared," Haji Mohammad Rauf said by telephone from his home just outside Musa Qala. "Most of the families have fled the area, but I’m afraid that if we leave the soldiers will loot all the things from our home."

 

On Friday, December 7, British-led NATO forces started the attack by surrounding the district center on three sides, thus leaving an escape route to the north, into the mountains. While it was said that this would allow civilians to escape the coming onslaught, one Musa Qala resident reported that foreign forces used helicopters to drop leaflets over the town advising civilians to stay in their homes: "Don’t go outside your home. We want to bring peace to Musa Qala," they read.

 

Just how many civilians followed the foreigners’ advice and stayed in Musa Qala during the bombardment? According to UNICEF in a press release on December 20, "As a result of a military operation in Musa Qala, around 400 families have been displaced in the neighboring villages." A Reuters report dated December 9 relates Afghan military estimates that "Up to 300 civilians fled" the area in advance of fighting, "but ISAF commander McNeill said there were still many non-combatants in the centre of Musa Qala." Citing photo intelligence, NATO commander Dan McNeill said "I don’t agree with your premise that a lot of people are vacating [the district center]. We have seen some people vacating but not the hordes you suggest." So far, nobody has ventured a guess as to how many civilians were in Musa Qala when the NATO/US/Afghan attack began. Based on the figures cited above, perhaps 2000 civilians stayed behind. Thus it is hardly surprising that NATO/US officials have been rather circumspect about Taliban casualties in the resulting operation while claiming that no civilians were killed – despite much evidence to the contrary.

 

 

The attack

 

The attempt to take Musa Qala, which began on Friday, December 7, was essentially a two-pronged operation. One prong was formed by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and British-led ISAF forces, which included Estonian and Danish soldiers. Afghan and British-led NATO forces would advance from the south, the east and the west, closing in around the villages which surround the town of Musa Qala. Meanwhile, members of the American 82nd Airborne regiment, dropped by helicopters into the hills north of the town, would advance southward to "kick down the door" and allow the Afghan units to take the town.

 

With headlines like "Afghan, NATO forces target model Taliban town" (Globe and Mail) and "Afghan army takes lead in battle to retake town" (Edmonton Journal), the Canadian media nicely parroted NATO propaganda that the Afghan National Army (ANA) are fast becoming a serious fighting force. Pretenses like that are hard to maintain, as the London Times’ embedded journalist Stephen Grey saw from close-up: "The Afghans were supposedly fighting under their own command. Yet they could barely function without Nato’s protection and Nato had to cajole them to move forward."

 

Estimates of the size of the allied force reveal a huge operation. "More British forces are being used in this action than in any other battle in Afghanistan," reports that Telegraph. That means "anything up to 3,000". Of course, the multinational "coalition" is nothing if not backed up by air power. According to one journalist "B1 and B52 bombers backed by A10 tank busters, F16s, Apache helicopters and Specter gunships were used to kill hundreds of Taliban fighters." The air operation was so big that some aircraft were redeployed from action in Iraq for the assault.

 

In the event, and contrary to NATO/US claims, aerial bombardment was extensive. IWPR reported that the NATO claim that they were careful to avoid endangering civilians "was in stark contrast to reports received from inside Musa Qala, where residents have been cowering under bombs and artillery shells for the better part of a week." "The past five days have been hell," said one resident. "[T]here has been bombing and more bombing. People are terrified." Nick Meo of the Times reported that "local people say the Nato operation had involved massive bombing by B-52s as well as round-the-clock ground attacks by helicopter gunships." Recall that this was for an area where NATO leaflets had advised people to stay in their homes.

 

The Taliban resistance was, according to one embedded journalist, "more ferocious than NATO commanders had expected". This despite NATO intelligence claiming that only some 200 Taliban remained in the town by the time of the assault. In any event, after three days the insurgents had had enough and pulled out. In the process they saved face and carried off a minor public relations coup. With their spokesperson citing their concern to minimize civilian casualties, Taliban forces pulled out of the district center on Monday, December 10. Yet it was not until the next day that NATO and Afghan forces announced they had secured the district centre.

 

While some insurgents were putting up unexpected resistance in Musa Qala, "several hundred Taliban fighters launched a counterattack against NATO and Afghan government troops in Sangin district," according to Radio Free Europe. That attack occurred during the early morning of Monday, December 10 – just before the insurgents in Musa Qala pulled out.

 

Upon taking the town, Afghan forces boasted of overwhelming success. "Afghans say hundreds of Taliban killed in Musa Qala", said one Reuters headline. The commander of British troops in southern Afghanistan, on the other hand, did not offer an estimate of the number of Taliban killed except to say "a lot of them".

 

It should be realled, however, that NATO estimates of insurgent casualties have in the past been immensely inflated. Following the Canadian-led Operation Medusa in Kandahar province in September of 2006, NATO’s top commander estimated Taliban casualties to be as high as 1500. Yet veteran journalist Tim Albone reporting from the battle scene found "no bodies and no blood stains – certainly no evidence of the 600 rebels Nato claimed to have killed." (See Dave Markland, "Operation Medusa and after", sevenoaksmag.com.) While no reporters have made such explicit claims regarding the present operation, there is one suggestive report from Nick Meo of the Times. Meo, it seems, had been embedded a British unit on mop-up operations which "had searched compounds and came across only one dead Taleban and an old man, who was alive."

 

 

Civilian casualties

 

Soon after the assault on Musa Qala began, reports of civilians killed in the attack came trickling in. The London Times’ Stephen Grey, embedded with British and Afghan soldiers, himself witnessed two civilians dead after an apparent crossfire incident, writing "in the end there was no doubt that the two civilians had been killed by American gunfire" (Times, Dec 9). Strikingly, a NATO spokesperson said days later that no civilians had been killed in the operation.

 

More reports of dead civilians were to follow, though the average reader of the mainstream media would not have heard about them. The Manchester Guardian was virtually alone in relaying local elders’ claims that up to 40 civilians were killed in the attack. While the Guardian made mere mention of the accusations, only the Institute for War and Peace Reporting detailed the allegations.

 

According to the IWPR, one local said "A neighbourhood called Nabo Aka near the main mosque in Musa Qala was bombed, and 28 civilians were killed just there," including women and children, but "no Taliban". Likewise, one resident relates:

 

    "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."

 

Major media outlets had precious little to say about civilian deaths. On December 14, the London Times’ Nick Meo related an Afghan boy’s report that two of his relatives were killed by firing from a helicopter gunship. The BBC website cites one local saying he had seen the bodies of 15 women and children. By the time of this report (December 16) British military officials were claiming only two civilians had died.

 

In the New York Times (Dec 11) General Azimi, an Afghan Defence Ministry spokesperson, stated that four civilians had died so far in the operation. The paper also quoted a resident of Musa Qala saying "We had heard there were a lot of civilian casualties," but the paper offered nothing further on the subject. Recall that December 11 saw reports in both the Guardian and IWPR of some 40 civilian casualties.

 

North of the forty-ninth parallel, the media for the most part retailed the Afghan Defence Ministry’s assertions. Several Canadian daily papers (Toronto Star, Edmonton Journal, Victoria Times-Colonist and Ottawa Citizen) reported on December 9 that two children had been killed in the battle, though the closest that information got to the anyone’s front page was page eight of the Ottawa Citizen. The Edmonton Journal (Dec 11, p A13) ran the NYT story acknowledging four dead, while Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail wrote the same day (Dec 11, p A19) that "at least six civilians" had so far been killed.

 

Thus, apart from the Guardian’s rather bland reference to 40 civilian deaths, the full extent of civilian allegations, available to anyone with an internet connection, appears to have been entirely ignored in the major print media of Britain and Canada as well as the New York Times.**

 

On first glance, one might think that these media outlets merit a prize for demonstrating the workings of Orwell’s memory hole. However, another recent story shows the media exceeding even those heights in ignoring news that puts the NATO project in a bad light. Here again, it is the Institute for War and Peace Reporting which broke the news, while mainstream outlets looked the other way, nearly unanimously.

 

On December 11, the IWPR website posted a report which relayed villagers’ accusations of a massacre committed by what seem to be special forces. Residents of Toube village in Helmand province allege that foreign troops, accompanied by Afghan soldiers, killed over a dozen civilians, including babies, in a nighttime commando-style raid. The piece cites numerous witnesses, who all "spoke consistently of soldiers breaking down doors, shooting children and cutting throats".

 

A Lexis-Nexus search reveals that only one major English language media outlet covered the allegations. The British Telegraph on December 12 cited an officer saying that the British Army is "taking seriously" the atrocity allegations. NATO’s Col. Richard Eaton acknowledges that "something" took place in the area at the time, but that the casualties were thought to all be Taliban fighters. Another NATO spokesperson confesses to be unaware of any NATO troops in the area on the night in question.

 

Then who might have been involved in the "something"? It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to surmise that the NATO officials were unwilling or unable to state whether Operation Enduring Freedom troops had been involved. (The US-led OEF, which includes special forces, is said to be separate from the NATO-led ISAF forces; however, there is known to be overlap in their missions as well as ambiguity about their respective roles and areas of operations.) According to the IWPR report: "PRT officials were unable to comment on who is most likely to have been involved. "

 

How to explain the total silence of North American media on the matter? While it might be supposed that the allegations are all pure fabrications, that would not make the matter unworthy of coverage. For as IWPR relates, close to a hundred elders, upon hearing reports of the atrocity were motivated to travel to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, some two districts distant from their homes. There they had an audience with government officials and representatives of the British Provincial Reconstruction Team. Surely any event – real or imagined – that causes so significant a reaction is newsworthy ipso facto.

 

 

Aftermath

 

As some 1600 Afghan, British and American troops moved in to occupy the newly-conquered Musa Qala district center, and sporadic attacks there continued, rosy NATO/US declarations of victory rang rather hollow. Musa Qala represents only one of the many areas of Afghanistan which the Taliban control or dominate. In Helmand province alone, the Taliban still control three remote districts in the northern highlands (Washer, Naw Zad and Baghran) while dominating the major districts of Garmsir, Gereshk and Sangin. "Meanwhile," reports the Asia Times, "the Taliban have captured two districts near Kandahar to build up pressure in that province to distract NATO from Helmand." And even in the center of newly-liberated Musa Qala district, one embedded journalist reports that "the strength of Taliban support was not hard to find. Several of those returning accosted our translator, an Afghan from Kabul. ‘Why are you working for the infidel?’ they asked."

 

One of the salient themes of the war in Afghanistan is the constant taking, losing and retaking of strategic positions in hotly contested areas. Musa Qala is a prime example of this dynamic. "British troops have seized Musa Qala before, but then have become virtual prisoners in their barracks," remarks Asia Times’ Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad. "Indeed, last year they were only able to vacate the town after striking a truce with the Taliban, who controlled all the surrounding areas of the inhospitable terrain."

 

British forces aren’t the only troops involved in this repetitive tread mill. On the very same weekend that Musa Qala was being retaken, Canadian soldiers next door in Kandahar district once again took the strategically important Zangabad area in Panjwai district. Called Operation Sure Thing, the assault met intense resistance and marked the first time that Canadian Forces fought alongside Nepalese Gurkhas, who are themselves old hands at imperial support. However, it was only in September that the Globe and Mail’s Graeme Smith wrote about an earlier Canadian operation in Zangabad: "[T]he Canadians built a police outpost in a village held by insurgents less than 48 hours earlier." In fact, the Canadians’ see-saw like struggles in Zangabad go back at least to June of 2006.

 

So too the latest surprise attack on sleeping Taliban fighters in Sia Choy, also in Panjwai district. It comes almost exactly a year after a near-identical operation when "ISAF launched a precision air strike against a known ‘Taliban command post’", launched after "they had received credible information about Taliban hiding in the Siajoy area of the district." (Pajhwok Afghan News, Dec. 14/2006)

 

Yet even if this time around foreign forces are able to hold on to these contested areas on a more permanent basis, the taking of Musa Qala and other areas might still backfire. As IWPR staffers observe:

 

    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.

 

It is not hard to imagine why Afghan and foreign troops might be rejected by the local population – even apart from allegations of civilians bombed to death in the initial attack. Nick Meo of the Times reports from NATO-occupied Musa Qala that "one farmer, coming back from the desert, where his family was still in hiding, was nearly shot outside his home after ignoring an order by the British patrol to stop."

 

Despite the obvious perils of the troops’ presence, many Musa Qala residents are said to be more concerned about who will replace the ANA and NATO/US soldiers. Many locals fear a repeat of the systematic looting which occurred in nearby Sangin some eight months ago after Afghan and foreign troops similarly retook that area and handed it over to police and allied militias. Indeed, these fears have already been articulated, as a Pajhwok News headline makes clear: "Musa Qala residents want no police in the district". Their aversion to police is understandable, as residents relate accusations that police have in the past been involved in drug use, robberies and forced home searches.

 

The Afghan National Police are widely known to be corrupt, but the situation may be worsening, as the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter relates. A "prominent citizen" in Kandahar City interviewed by Potter related his concern about the police in secretive tones: "One year ago we could say these things out loud. Now, we can only whisper, because [the police] are so strong that if you do more than whisper you put your life at risk". The man even made a rather startling comparison: "The most frightening thing is that it feels like we are starting to repeat the 1990s, when the warlords were in control and everything was chaos. Today, the police and the warlords are the same thing. And that was the recipe that gave us the Taliban the first time."

 

In the end, the residents of Musa Qala may prefer western neglect to the brand of help which is currently being offered them. As two of the IWPR’s Afghan reporters explain:

 

    Local people told IWPR that they just want to be left alone. With winter approaching, the prospect of losing one’s home and shelter is even more daunting than in the summer months.

 

One Reuters correspondent puts local concerns about the occupation into a revealing context. Writing from Musa Qala, Jon Hemming writes that before the recent assault, "while Afghan and foreign forces held off from attacking, Musa Qala saw a measure of security absent elsewhere in Afghanistan due to the constant threat of insurgent suicide attacks." He quotes one local who sums up the challenge facing those who would bring peace at the barrel of a gun: "Don’t build us schools, don’t build us a mosque, bring us security".

 

As the residents of Musa Qala are seeing first hand, the NATO/US project brings war, not security.

 

** It is not only in Musa Qala district where civilians were endangered on that weekend. The Globe and Mail’s Graeme Smith reported on December 10 that "An air strike in the Nowzad district of Helmand province this weekend killed 12 civilians and left a boy as the sole surviving member of the family, said Abdul Satar Mazahari, head of the refugee department in Helmand province."

 

 

Dave Markland lives in Vancouver. He edits stopwarblog.blogspot.com, where an earlier version of this essay appeared.

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