British 'success' under siege in
Afghanistan By Syed Saleem
KARACHI - British troops have once
again recaptured the less than a few square
kilometers of the district headquarters of Musa
Qala town in Helmand province from the Taliban,
but, as before, it could turn out to be a pyrrhic
North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) headquarters in Kabul have
heralded this week's operations as a "most
strategic and significant success" in the
province, where 80% of Afghanistan's poppy
cultivation is located.
have seized Musa Qala before, but then have
become virtual prisoners in
their barracks. 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.
The Taliban put up token resistance this
week, according to a Taliban commander in
Kandahar, Moulvi Abdul Jalil, who told Asia Times
Online on telephone that the organisation now aims
to concentrate its efforts on Kandahar province
and has already captured two districts near
With regard to Musa Qala,
Mullah Noormal (a jihadi alias), a lieutenant of
Mullah Abdul Bari, said in a satellite phone
interview with Asia Times Online, "They [British]
fired continuous artillery shells for two days on
the civilian population and as a result the people
evacuated the area. The Taliban did not receive
any casualties as we did not actually fight.
Civilians were the one victims. We were under the
command of Mullah Abdul Bari and retreated when
the troops rolled into town.
"Now that the
troops are in Musa Qala, we have taken over
positions nearby, namely the towns of Raigi and
Shaban. The British troops are now once again
trapped, like they were in 2006. We will now
retaliate at a time of our choice. They don't have
even offices to stay in in Musa Qala as we
destroyed the Olaswali [administrative office]
before leaving the town," said Noormal.
"Now they are in Musa Qala's headquarters
and we are sitting in all the villages around Musa
Qala. They don't have a way forward or
Noormal's comments could be
taken with a pinch of salt, but they are not
entirely untrue. This correspondent spent
considerable time traveling in all the districts
of Helmand province under the control of the
Taliban (and also those under British control. He
saw the area extensively through the eyes of the
Taliban late last year and through the eyes of
NATO forces early this year.
district, on the way to Musa Qala, there is no
road network. Vehicles have to travel on wide
deserted plains, following the tire marks of other
vehicles. The average speed is less than 10
kilometers an hour. The approach to Musa Qala is
marked by agriculture fields and tress. The town
itself comprises some shops, a hospital, a few
mosques and inns and the district headquarters.
NATO's obsession with Helmand
It is clear that NATO is obsessed with
Helmand province in order to complete the
renovation of Kajaki Dam, a hydroelectric project
that will ensure uninterrupted power supply to
Kandahar and Helmand provinces. This is
strategically significant for a backward region
where roads do not exist and the people still rely
on natural rain water reservoirs.
shares a lawless border with Pakistan through
which smugglers carry goods to Iran via Pakistan's
Balochistan province. Kandahar province lies to
its east. The bumper poppy crops in Helmand that
make their way through Pakistan and Iran to Europe
earn the Taliban huge dividends to fuel their war
against NATO. And the smuggling routes are
reliable supply lines for arms and human resources
to flow into Afghanistan.
province's southern district of Gramsir, bordering
Pakistan, to the northern end of Baghran, large
areas are partially or completely under Taliban
control. Partial control means that district
headquarters are under the control of the Kabul
administration and all surrounding villages are
under the control of the Taliban.
authorities in Helmand confirm that poppy
cultivation takes place across the province.
Drug-processing labs are mostly in
Taliban-controlled Sangin district, north of
Gramsir. The trafficking routes pass through the
government-controlled provincial capital of
Lashkargah, between those two districts, with the
connivance of Afghan security before going on
through Taliban areas to Pakistan. Using exactly
the same route via Pakistan, arms are smuggled
into Helmand then spread all over Afghanistan.
In this context, NATO is once again
desperate to cut off these vital arteries.
The scope of success US-led
forces entered Helmand province without much
resistance during the invasion of 2001 because it
was a collective tribal decision to say goodbye to
the Taliban and welcome the new power. It was
believed the incoming forces would be able to
provide basic necessities such as water,
electricity, food and ultimately prosperity.
This did not happen, while efforts were
made to curtail poppy cultivation, a vital cash
crop. By 2005, the tribes - once again unanimously
- decided that it was time to boot out the foreign
forces (rather than welcome the Taliban again) so
they could grow their poppy and lead their lives
according to their own traditions and tribal codes
without the intervention of the non-local Afghan
army and police.
They did allow the
Taliban to operate, and foreign forces were driven
away from many areas. However, apart from Baghran
district, which is completely ruled by the
Taliban, and Lashkargah, which is run by the
Afghan government, all districts are run by local
tribal councils, which allow the Taliban to stay.
From December 2006 until now, British
Commonwealth Office staff and the British task
force stationed in Helmand have tried their level
best to make Helmand "civilized". They have opened
schools, rebuilt mosques, dug wells, launched
programs for capacity building and many other
development projects in coordination with tribal
elders. But this has not delivered the expected
results, as the population remains obsessed to
drive out the foreigners.
It should be
stressed that this does not necessarily mean that
people are fully committed to the Taliban and
their ways. Except for Baghran, most places are
manned by pro-Taliban commanders who don't
represent the Taliban hardcore - they are just
local tribal warriors who have joined the Taliban
rank and file for the time being.
greatest challenge facing NATO is to retain
control of the recaptured region of Musa Qala and
win desperately needed indigenous support. This is
possible through two means: complete
administrative liberty for the people, which means
tribal rule, and the financial freedom for them to
grow poppy and trade (read smuggle). Once NATO
agrees to this, the people will be won over and
the Taliban will be sidelined.
tough choice. Meanwhile, the Taliban have captured
two districts near Kandahar to build up pressure
in that province to distract NATO from Helmand.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia
Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be
reached at email@example.com