Monday, December 10, 2007

Jason Burke on Musa Qala

Jason Burke, author of a great book on Al-Qaeda, reports from Pakistan on some background to the attempt to retake Musa Qala by NATO and Afghan forces. Excerpts:

Jason Burke
Monday December 10, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Musa Qala does not deserve the attention it is currently receiving. A dusty town that is the centre of a district with 35,000 inhabitants in the north of Helmand province, it is a key strategic location neither for the Nato-led ISAF forces and the Afghan National Army that are fighting alongside them, nor for the Taliban...

... The Taliban know they need an element of public consent - as Nato and the Afghan government do - to be able to rule. And they know that the people of Musa Qala, like most Afghans, want to be ruled neither by a corrupt and inefficient government, nor by them, but to be left to themselves.

With this in mind, claims that the Taliban run more than 50% of Afghanistan should be treated with scepticism. Between 1998 and 2001, the Taliban repeatedly claimed to control 80% of the country. Yet to anyone who travelled extensively around the country in that period, it was clear much of that dominance was nominal, depending on the fickle allegiance of local powerbrokers, village chiefs and warlords.

A final reason for their relative flexibility in Musa Qala is that the Taliban are, largely, local men, part of the infinitely complex network of local power relations that makes Afghan society tick rather than being a network superimposed upon it.

And it is in this factor that many of the actual roots of the violence lie. 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. (link)
Another piece by Burke dated the same day closes with some observations:
Military commanders in Afghanistan describe the Taliban as composed of three "tiers": a hardcore of ideologically committed militants; a second layer of "fellow travellers" pursuing agendas that overlap with those of the Taliban such as feuds or drug trafficking; and a third tier of foot soldiers fighting for a mixture of reasons.

This year has been the deadliest in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001 with more than 6,200 people estimated to have been killed in insurgency-related violence.

Jean MacKenzie, Afghanistan country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, said reports reaching Kabul indicated that the Taliban were still entrenched in Musa Qala and that, though there had been no major bombardments, skirmishing had continued.

MacKenzie said: "They could not hold it before so I do not see why they will be able to hold it this time. This is far from the Taliban's last stand. Even if forced out of Musa Qala, they still control much of the rest of Helmand." (link)
The same piece quotes Lt Col Tim Eaton dismissing Taliban claims that they have 2000 insurgents defending Musa Qala. The number, says Eaton, is "closer to 200". Readers may recall (as we blogged here) that Afghan journalists allowed into Musa Qala several weeks ago reported seeing some 100 vehicles belonging to the Taliban. Those 100 vehicles, assuming four to a car (which might well be an underestimate), indicate at least 400 soldiers - probably many more. If the British colonel is right, then presumably many Taliban fighters pulled out of Musa Qala before the NATO offensive began.

The colonel told Burke that it was the task of British-led forces to seal off the town while the American troops "kicked down the door" allowing Afghan National Army troops to take the town. We have already seen on this blog that these ANA troops "could barely function without NATO's protection" (Times UK).

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