Monday, December 17, 2007

Musa Qala Redux Part 4: Victory?

[See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]
As some 1600 Afghan, British and American troops occupy the newly-conquered Musa Qala district centre, and sporadic attacks there continue, there are many reasons to doubt the rosy NATO/US declarations of victory.

In the first place, 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 (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 centre 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, it marked the first time 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: "the 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 to at least June of 2006.

So too the latest surprise attack on sleeping Taliban fighters in Sia Choy, also in Panjwai district. It comes 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 goes on to make a 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.

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