Sunday, December 16, 2007

Musa Qala Redux Part 2: The Attack

[See Part 1]
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." (Note that B52's are an unusual choice of weapon, as they are more for long-distance and higher altitude bombing.) 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 centre 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 the surprising 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", reads a 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", 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 who "had searched compounds and came across only one dead Taleban and an old man, who was alive.

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