6 years, 10 months ago
We have previously covered the secret negotiations between MI6 agents and mid-level Taliban commanders, the result of which was the agreement between British forces and one Mullah Abdul Salaam who had promised military help when British and U.S. forces retook Musa Qala late in 2007. The military assistance never materialized, and instead of engaging in the battle, Salaam and his “fighters” stayed in his compound in Shakahraz, ten miles east, with a small cortège of fighters, where he made increasingly desperate pleas for help. “He said that he would bring all the tribes with him but they never materialised,” recalled one British officer at the forefront of the operation. “Instead, all that happened was a series of increasingly fraught and frantic calls from him for help to Karzai.”
For this he was rewarded with rule of Musa Qala. But not more than half a year later relations between Salaam and the British have badly degraded. The British have accused him of corruption and thuggery, while he has accused the British of undermining his “authority.” Salaam is “feathering his own nest” while reconstruction is not forthcoming. As for the most recent account of the situation in Musa Qala, the Times recently penned an important article on the crumbling dream of utopia in Musa Qala. It is a sorry tale of lack of electricity, lack of services, wasted and lost reconstruction money, complaints from city elders, and comparisons with life under the Taliban (where it is being said that life was easier and without corruption).
The security is still problematic since the retaking of Musa Qala.
Musa Qala seems a desolate place of broken houses and rubble, though we are assured it has a clinic, a mosque and a paid workforce. The building in which we sleep was once a hotel and then the headquarters of the Taleban, but is now little more than a concrete shell, pock-marked by bullet-holes. The town’s security depends on its resident defence force – 5 Scots (the Argylls) and the Afghan National Army.
Its population is testimony to its instability – estimates vary from 3,000 to 20,000. We sleep outside, under mosquito nets, taking care to shade our torches in the night, woken occasionally by the sound of artillery fire (which we hope is ours not theirs).
This remains a highly charged war zone. Three days ago, while we were in the district centre – the army camp on the outskirts of Musa Qala – three platoons of D Company of the Argylls came back from a 48-hour patrol to the north of the town, in the course of which they came under heavy fire on three separate occasions. Private David Poderis, 37, showed us tangible evidence of the Taleban’s ferocity in the form of two neat bullet-holes in his helmet.
Finally, the CTC Sentinel at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2008, has an important article by David C. Isby entitled “The High Stakes Battle for the Future of Musa Qala.” A very few of his observations are pointed out below (while the entire article is recommended reading).
The Musa Qala Taliban were not destroyed in battle, but moved largely to adjacent districts in 2007. Helmand member of parliament Nasima Niazi has claimed that the Taliban remain active in Musa Qala despite the reoccupation. Security outside the district center remains uncertain [page 11].
The British 2006 campaign in southern Afghanistan has already become part of military history—marked by a popular 2007 exhibition at the National Army Museum in London—but the results of that fighting have not helped the United Kingdom’s image as NATO’s foremost practitioner of counter-insurgency and stability operations, employing tactics refined since Malaya in conflicts worldwide. Rather, the image was of besieged “platoon house” outposts under Taliban attack and of too few deployed forces being desperately under-resourced. British forces in Afghanistan lack an ability to fund quick response development programs in a way comparable to the United States, and, according to the Economist, “a growing number of British officers grudgingly recognize that America is learning the lessons of irregular warfare, drawn mainly from British colonial experience, better than the modern British Army” [page 11 & 12].
Since the initial withdrawal from Musa Qala in 2006, the British image for military capability in general and counter-insurgency competence in particular has suffered a number of setbacks, by no means all in Afghanistan. The success of Iraqi forces in Basra in 2008 was widely seen as them doing a job that the British had left unfinished for political reasons. Britain’s relations with Kabul have suffered a number of setbacks, from the removal of diplomats following direct negotiations (bypassing Kabul) with the Taliban at Musa Qala in 2006 to Kabul’s rejection of Lord Paddy Ashdown to be the new UN envoy in Afghanistan. British differences with the government in Kabul have increased, and Britain has become the focus of much of the frustration with coalition efforts [page 12].
Isby goes on to discuss the importance of Musa Qala for Kabul and then for the UK.
For the United Kingdom, it is a chance to show that the second largest coalition member in terms of troops in Afghanistan can demonstrate results on the ground commensurate with their status in bilateral and multilateral security relationships. As British policy is to channel aid through Kabul where feasible, this provides an opportunity for aid to be directed in Musa Qala in order to show a long-term commitment at preventing the Taliban from returning to burn schools and kill Afghans. If the United Kingdom fails in Musa Qala, its relations with coalition partners and Afghans alike is likely to be harmed, and it may have a further impact on its international standing.
We have already pointed out that the British grunts are among the bravest on earth, but the problems here are associated with strategy and force projection. The campaign didn’t begin well in Musa Qala, with the British appointing by fiat a man who had neither moral authority nor personal investment in the area. The situation has degraded since then.
Musa Qala is a thorny set of problems, but this could also have been said of the Anbar Province. But the U.S. Marines had continual force projection for a protracted period of time, and when kinetic operations needed to be mixed with biometrics and gated communities, this transition was instantaneous. Then when Lt. Colonels had to be at city council meetings, they participated as warrior-scholars.
When Marine Lt. Col. Bill Mullen showed up at the city council meeting here Tuesday, everyone wanted a piece of him. There was the sheikh who wants to open a school, the judge who wants the colonel to be at the jail when several inmates are freed, and the Iraqi who just wants a burned-out trash bin removed from his neighborhood.
As insurgent violence continues to decrease in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar Province – an improvement that President Bush heralded in his visit to Al Asad Air Base Monday as one sign of progress in the war – the conversation is shifting in Anbar. Where sheikhs and tribal leaders once only asked the US to protect them from Sunni extremists, now they want to know how to get their streets cleaned and where to buy generators …
The changes here have allowed provincial and local governments to get established over the past few months, US officials here say. And now, true to the tribal culture that permeates Iraqi society, Sunni sheikhs here want to create a relationship of true patronage with what they consider to be the biggest and most powerful tribe here: the Marines of Anbar Province.
The U.S. Marines have had significant success in the Garmser area of operations in the Helmand Province, but the 24th MEU will be rotating out soon. Whether the replacements are U.S. Marines or British forces, the strategy must be one of being the most powerful tribe in Helmand. Only then can a society be [re]constructed so that forces can turn over to legitimate governmental authorities and stand down. It is a proven paradigm, and without it, we will fail in Afghanistan.
There is no magic to perform, no secret Gnostic words to utter, no tricks. Troops are necessary, and warrior-scholars who can fight a battle as well as govern a city council meeting. Under-resourced forces and shady deals with corrupt, second rate, has-been Taliban commanders (or religiously motivated hard core Taliban commanders) simply won’t do the job. The CTC Sentinel has it right concerning the need for the British (and NATO) to get Musa Qala right. The CTC Sentinel might be overestimating the importance of Musa Qala to the campaign. The real importance of Musa Qala is the shining example it gives us as to the wrong way to do counterinsurgency in a tribal region fighting a transnational insurgency.