Monday, December 10, 2007

Afghan & NATO Troops Take Back Key Taliban Stronghold

Into 'The Valley Of Death' With American Troops As Afghanistan Falls Apart

British troops in Iraq are celebrating after being told their war is almost over. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to withdraw thousands of troops in the coming weeks.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, British, and NATO forces, are looking at a decade long fight to finally rout the Taliban. For today, they can celebrate a rare strategic victory, thanks to the Afghan Army :
Afghan and NATO troops have scored a significant victory by forcing the Taliban to withdraw from its urban stronghold in the south of the country.

The town of Musa Qala was taken by the Taliban in February and was the only major centre in Taliban hands.

The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who is on a surprise visit to Afghanistan has described the recapture of the town as a vital step in the fight against the Taliban.

The Afghan army began the offensive on the town Musa Qala last Friday, supported by British and US forces. The Taliban has now withdrawn reportedly telling local elders they were not prepared to fight street by street.

Major Charles Anthony is a spokesman for the international forces. He says Afghan soldiers have recaptured the town's centre.

"The last report that we had is that the Afghan National Army had reached the town centre area, was holding their position, consolidating their gains at this point and in support (phonetic), ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) is in support of the Afghan National Army at this point."

The heavy fighting and aerial bombardment of the town has reportedly killed 12 Taliban fighters and two children, two NATO soldiers also during the four-day offensive. And thousands of local residents fled the fighting north across the desert and into the mountains.

British troops had occupied Musa Qala previously, but after making a deal with local elders they handed over control and withdrew. But the handover resulted in the Taliban reinstating themselves in the town in February this year and was until today the last big regional centre held by the Taliban.

British troops are expected to re-establish a town in Musa Qala; the defence will now be led by Afghan troops.

However the Afghan and British forces will have to regain the trust of the local people who have been displaced by fighting several times. And there's growing frustration that reconstruction projects have been to slow to materialise.

Veteran Taliban and Al Qaeda reporter Jason Burke explains why the battle for Musa Qala is the Afghanistan War in microcosm :
The battle for Musa Qala is to a significant degree an inter-tribal conflict in which religion, varying degrees of ethnic and nationalist sentiment and external support have all been pressed into service to continue centuries-old struggles for scarce resources.

When the Taliban fell, the president, Hamid Karzai, appointed loyalists within the Akhunzada sub-tribe to key positions of power locally. For three years, the other sub- tribes, the Pirzai, Ibrahimzai, and Khalozai, tried to secure a fairer redistribution of lucrative administrative posts through more or less peaceful means, largely to no avail.

The result was that, when in 2005 the ideological hardcore of the Taliban launched their offensive to retake the south and east of Afghanistan, they found large numbers of ready allies in northern Helmand.

But with stalemate in the current battle for Afghanistan, Musa Qala has now become far more than a tribal fight. Both sides are searching for a symbolic victory that will indicate the future course of the war. The losers all round of course, will be the villagers themselves.

Vanity Fair has an excellent, long feature by writer Sebastian Junger, who joins American forces in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, as they try to take control of a key strategic route used by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Korengal Valley has become known as one of the deadliest pieces of terrain in the world for American soldiers :
By many measures, Afghanistan is falling apart. The Afghan opium crop has flourished in the past two years and now represents 93 percent of the world’s supply, with an estimated street value of $38 billion in 2006. That money helps bankroll an insurgency that is now operating virtually within sight of the capital, Kabul. Suicide bombings have risen eightfold in the past two years, including several devastating attacks in Kabul, and as of October, coalition casualties had surpassed those of any previous year. The situation has gotten so bad, in fact, that ethnic and political factions in the northern part of the country have started stockpiling arms in preparation for when the international community decides to pull out. Afghans—who have seen two foreign powers on their soil in 20 years—are well aware of the limits of empire. They are well aware that everything has an end point, and that in their country end points are bloodier than most.

The Korengal is widely considered to be the most dangerous valley in northeastern Afghanistan, and Second Platoon is considered the tip of the spear for the American forces there. Nearly one-fifth of all combat in Afghanistan occurs in this valley, and nearly three-quarters of all the bombs dropped by nato forces in Afghanistan are dropped in the surrounding area. The fighting is on foot and it is deadly, and the zone of American control moves hilltop by hilltop, ridge by ridge, a hundred yards at a time. There is literally no safe place in the Korengal Valley. Men have been shot while asleep in their barracks tents.


The Korengal is so desperately fought over because it is the first leg of a former mujahideen smuggling route that was used to bring in men and weapons from Pakistan during the 1980s. From the Korengal, the mujahideen were able to push west along the high ridges of the Hindu Kush to attack Soviet positions as far away as Kabul. It was called the Nuristan-Kunar corridor, and American military planners fear that al-Qaeda is trying to revive it. If the Americans simply seal off the valley and go around, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters currently hiding near the Pakistani towns of Dir and Chitral could use the Korengal as a base of operations to strike deep into eastern Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is rumored to be in the Chitral area, as are his second in command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and a clutch of other foreign fighters. While thousands of poorly trained Taliban recruits martyr themselves in southern Afghanistan, bin Laden’s most highly trained fighters ready themselves for the next war, which will happen in the East.

In addition to its strategic value, the Korengal also has the perfect population in which to root an insurgency. The Korengalis are clannish and violent and have successfully fought off every outside attempt to control them—including the Taliban’s in the 1990s. They practice the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam and speak a language that even people in the next valley over cannot understand.

Junger's Vanity Fair feature
is easily one of the best reports from Afghanistan we've read all year.

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