Now that the dust has cleared somewhat, I want to review some of what has been written in the press about the attempt to retake Musa Qala.
Musa Qala is a town of some 15000 people in northern Helmand province and is the administrative centre for the district of the same name. Located somewhat north of the main stream of the Helmand River, it lacks the strategic importance of more centrally-located Helmand towns like Sangin and Kajaki. (Interested readers can consult this map of Helmand - free registration required.) Just north of the town are mountains which provide a convenient path of escape for the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Taliban militants who have been headquartered there for some 10 months.
The area was ostensibly signed over to the control of tribal elders by the British ISAF forces in October 2006. The reason for the hand-over was that the British were suffering heavy casualties against Taliban fighters who had gained a foothold in the area. Thus the Brits were keen to concentrate their efforts in other areas of Helmand. While the agreement was supposed to keep both the British military and Taliban insurgents out of Musa Qala, some locals say that Taliban dominance was complete soon after the October agreement.
With the breaking of the ceasefire agreement under ambiguous circumstances in February 2007, Taliban leaders took more explicit control. For locals this meant taxation, madrasas in place of what schools already existed, shariah courts and a Taliban-appointed police chief. 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 jumping off point for their attacks elsewhere in the region - for example, on neighbouring districts of Farah province next door. And while the NATO/US public relations department recites an ostinato of "Taliban foreign fighters", in fact the movement relies 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, others 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. IWPR reported that three quarters of Musa Qala's residents had evacuated, leaving behind only those who were too poor to do so. Similarly, the Telegraph relates:
There are signs that some people have decided to stay because of the fear of looting when the town falls.Then on Friday, December 7, British-led NATO forces started the operation, aimed at surrounding the district centre on three sides, 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 helocopters 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." In the event, Reuters reported that "Up to 300 civilians fled" the area in advance of fighting. If you're keeping up with the arithmetic, that's 300 civilians out of perhaps 4000 (i.e. the poorest quarter of the town's 15000 inhabitants). Meanwhile, it is almost certain that insurgent fighters used the northern escape route to avoid the coming attack.
"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."
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 rather compelling evidence to the contrary.