|After the fighting and dying, the Taleban return as British depart|
The Times, UK
By Anthony Loyd and Tahir Luddin
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AMONG the many battles in his life, Nafaz Khan recalls the long fight for Musa Qala as one of special significance. As the former chief of police and militia commander in the northern Helmand town it was there that he fought alongside British troops against the Taleban.
“I loved those British soldiers,” he said. “They were great fighters and knew each of my men by name. Together we killed many, many Taleban.”
Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment, who were withdrawn from Musa Qala this month as part of a deal with Afghan tribal elders after more than two months of heavy fighting, remember the experience as one of violence, dirt, heat and lack of water. For Mr Khan, though, it held particular deprivation.
“Shrapnel from a Taleban mortar blew off one of my testicles soon after the fighting started,” he said while waiting to petition the governor of Helmand in Lashkar Gah for more men and munitions to attack a Taleban headquarters elsewhere. “But I stayed in Musa Qala with the British and fought on for another two and a half months until we were ordered to leave. The pain was terrible, but there were Talebs to kill.”
But when asked whether the deal to withdraw from Musa Qala had left the town free of Taleban influence, as Nato and Afghan government officials claim, Mr Khan’s face clouded as if in greater discomfort.
“Those British soldiers were cursing with us when we were all told to leave,” he said. “They said that they had fought and lost friends to keep the town. And now these tribal elders who are in charge of Musa Qala are the same who gave the Taleban support when they fought against us. The deal was just a clever trick to get the foreign soldiers to go.”
Musa Qala was one of four towns in northern Helmand to which British troops were sent this summer at the request of the Muhammad Daud, the governor of the province, after his officials and police proved incapable of defending themselves against Taleban attack.
Most observers agree that British commanders had little choice but to respond to Governor Daud’s request for troops. Yet opinion divides sharply as to whether the fighting — and loss of 17 British lives — has improved stability in the province. Today there are neither Afghan police nor British soldiers nor, apparently, Taleban in the centre of Musa Qala, which is governed instead by a shura — council — of 50 tribal elders, each of whom has supplied one gunman to protect the centre of the town.
Under the terms of the 14-point deal leading to the demilitarisation, Musa Qala is supposed to remain under nominal government control with the rule of law, including the collection of taxes, education and redevelopment, administered by the elders. None of that has yet happened.
“It is too early to expect these things to have occurred,” Governor Daud said. “The administration of elders has only had two weeks. Schools remain closed in Musa Qala, but they remain closed in many other districts in Helmand, both for girls and boys.”
He insisted that he was examining costings for redevelopment work in Musa Qala, and hoped to extend stability from the town centre into new territory. But elders said that since the British withdrawal almost all the surrounding district had returned to the Taleban.
They also said that most of the fighters who had attacked the British, rather than being insurgents who had crossed the border from Pakistan, were local people.
“Most of the fighters weren’t real Taleban,” said Wakil Haji Mohammed Naim, one of the elders in Musa Qala’s new administration. “There were some outsiders, but most were local men who were angry with the Government, its robbery and corruption, who were persuaded to fight against the foreigners by our preachers in the mosques. We’ll see how long this deal lasts. The Taleban are respecting it but our people are very angry with the Government.” His words reflected how easily, despite their best intent, British forces in northern Helmand often became embroiled in defending criminalised district officials against a force that was only part Taleban. “I’ll take a hell of a lot of convincing to believe that the fighting in Sangin didn’t start as a struggle between a bunch of drug criminals,” one British official in Afghanistan said, referring to another of Helmand’s battle zones in which British forces saw heavy action. “We should never have gone near it. It was a straight-up face-off between two drug lords and we were used to tip the balance.”
Whatever their success in suppressing attacks, the British may find that the force required and the death toll among indigenous Afghan fighters makes it all the harder to mollify the rural population with redevelopment projects.
To illustrate, Mr Khan pulls out the ID of an attacker killed in the fighting at Musa Qala. It was a United Nations voter registration card, belonging to an Afghan man who only two years ago had believed enough in the political process to vote in the presidential elections.