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Confusion Over Musa Qala Offensive

NATO spokesmen issue apparently contradictory accounts of operation to seize town from Taleban.
By IWPR Afghanistan
Five days into a joint offensive by international and Afghan forces to chase the Taleban out of Musa Qala, there’s confusion over whether the northern Helmand town has fallen.

At a press conference in Kabul today, December 11, the Afghan ministry of defence and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, said that Taleban had been driven from the town with no civilian casualties and minimal loss of troops.

Helmand governor Assadullah Wafa also told reporters that Musa Qala was now in the hands of Afghan National Army, ANA, and ISAF troops.

Even the Taleban told IWPR that they had cleared out to prevent massive bombardment and loss of civilian life.

But the ISAF spokesperson in Lashkar Gah said that the fanfare was a bit premature.

“Not at the moment.” replied ISAF spokesman Lt. Colonel Richard Eaton, when asked on today whether the Afghan army and ISAF had taken Musa Qala. “But the Afghan National Army have now launched their operation.”

Eaton suggested that the confusion might be due to a translation error.

“When the Afghan government was told by ISAF that we were in Musa Qala, we meant that we were on the edges, not in the centre,” he said. “Perhaps there was a misunderstanding when that was translated into Pashto or Dari.”

But the governor, Assadullah Wafa, was adamant.

“It is just wrong to say that we haven’t captured Musa Qala,” he told a gathering of journalists today. “The Taleban have planted mines and other explosives, which is why we are being so careful.

“I know I promised that the government flag would fly above Musa Qala today…due to the heavy bombing we were not able to accomplish that. But our soldiers are flags all by themselves, so we can still say that the Afghan flag is there.”

Musa Qala, a small district in the north of Helmand province, has been a Taleban stronghold since February, when the insurgents took complete control and hoisted their flag above the district centre. The town may have more symbolic than strategic importance; the sight of a Taleban-governed area in the midst of the province was an affront to the government and to foreign forces.

ISAF has been hinting for months that it had plans to retake the town. Last Friday, December 7, they put those plans into operation. Led by the ANA, with ISAF providing ground and air support, the combined force made their way north.

Officials at the local Provisional Reconstruction Team, PRT, confirmed that the attackers were moving slowly and carefully, to prevent massive devastation in the district.

“The idea is to squeeze the Taleban,” said one official, speaking privately. “We are cautiously moving toward the centre.”

But there may be no one left to “squeeze”: both the Afghan government and the Taleban have said that the insurgents have left Musa Qala.

“All Taleban have left Musa Qala because the foreigners were bombing heavily,” said Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, Taleban spokesman in the south. “We were worried that civilians would get killed. The mujaheddin went to other districts to fight against the foreigners.”

Government sources confirmed that the Taleban had attacked Sangin, to the south of Musa Qala. After heavy fighting, said Zaher Azizmi, defence ministry spokesman, the Taleban had been defeated in Sangin as well.

ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carlos Branco told a press conference in Kabul today that the operation had been accomplished with minimal loss if life.

“We were very careful in our air strikes,” he said. “That is why there were no civilian casualties in this operation. And only two NATO soldiers were killed by land mines.”

Branco went on to praise the dedication and professionalism of the Afghan soldiers who fought in Musa Qala.

Azimi, the defence ministry spokesman, said that there had been no casualties among the Afghan army troops. He added that the government and NATO were prepared to do whatever it takes to hold the town.

“We will stay in Musa Qala until we are 100 per cent sure that the police are able to maintain security,” he said. “Then we will withdraw our troops.”

According to Azimi, large numbers of Taleban were defecting to the government side. “We cannot give you details until negotiations are complete,” he said.

The picture painted by the government and ISAF of a carefully planned operation aimed at minimising civilian losses was in stark contrast to reports received from inside Musa Qala, where residents have been cowering under bombs and artillery shells for the better part of a week.

News from Musa Qala has been limited, in part because the heavy bombing had disrupted most telephone communications.

A few people with satellite phones were today able to give a sense of what situation was like.

“The past five days have been hell,” said one Musa Qala resident, who requested anonymity. “Today it is a little bit calmer. But there has been bombing and more bombing. People are terrified.”

The centre of town was closed down, he added, with people afraid to leave their homes, even to obtain basic necessities like food and water.

“The bazaar is closed,” he said. “I have a shop there, I am worried what will happen. We don’t know what to do, there are dozens of people killed and injured, but we cannot get to them to evacuate them. We cannot trust anybody, neither the Taleban nor the government.”

Maruf, another local resident, confirmed the account.

“A neighbourhood called Nabo Aka near the main mosque in Musa Qala was bombed, and 28 civilians were killed just there,” he said. “But the bodies are still lying under the rubble. There were women and children among them, but no Taleban.”

He paused, his voice breaking.

“This is a disaster, just a disaster,” he said.

Meanwhile, Taleban spirits appear to be high, despite being forced out of the district.

“We have a plan to recapture Musa Qala,” said a local Taleban commander. “We have told the people not to worry, and it is possible that we will begin our counterattack in the coming days. We will fight until we clear out the foreigners.”

Another commander, who identified himself as Mufti Abdurrahman, told IWPR, “We will never lose Musa Qala. We have now left it for the government, but in the future we will take it back.”

“This will not be our last fight with the foreigners,” said a third Taleb fighter who claimed to have 300 men under his command. “We will fight them with our last breath, until we clear our country of them.”

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.

“We are just desperate,” said Abdul Manaaf. “It is very cold these days, the women and children are getting sick. We appeal to the government.”

Hajji Ghulam Mohammad, also from Musa Qala, said,

“The governor promised that he would take the district peacefully. Well, where is he now? The ANA and NATO are bombing us, they are pounding us with artillery.

“This is not the way to defeat the Taleban. Instead, everybody becomes a Taleb. Please, tell the government that if they want to capture Musa Qala, they have to stop killing innocent people. Otherwise, the civilians will just join forces with the Taleban.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal and Mohammad Ilyas dayee are IWPR staff reporters in Helmand. Aziz Ahmad Shafe also reported from Helmand; Wahidullah Amani contributed from Kabul.

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