Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Musa Qala Braced for NATO Assault

The Taleban took the town almost without a shot, say residents as they flee an anticipated NATO attack.
By IWPR trainees
An eerie calm hangs over the district centre of Musa Qala, where the Taleban flag is flying once again. Shops are shuttered against looters, and many homes are empty. Residents, fearing a NATO bomb strike, are fleeing.



Late on February 1, Taleban fighters removed local elders from the district centre, destroyed their headquarters, and hoisted the white Taleban standard over Musa Qala.



Residents say there was little or no violence, but the action signalled the end of a tenuous four-month peace.



Musa Qala was the site of a controversial peace deal negotiated between the town elders and provincial government, which is backed by the British forces that patrol Helmand province. The town had seen bitter fighting which disrupted village life and endangered residents. The elders promised to keep the Taleban out of the town if the British military withdrew.



The Taleban were implicitly party to the deal. But Helmand residents say the militants were back almost before the sound of the British military vehicles had died away. While the elders retained nominal control, the Taleban were free to come and go as they pleased.



“The Taleban were already in the town,” said Mahbubshah, a Musa Qala resident who has not yet fled the district. “The only difference [now] is that the Taleban flag has replaced the government one.”



Accounts of the takeover vary, but most eyewitnesses agree that the Taleban were able to gain control of the district centre with little actual resistance. They detained the village elders, but later released them unharmed, according to both official and Taleban sources.



“I could hear yelling,” said Mohammad Karim, 40. “The elders were arguing with the Taleban, telling them they shouldn’t come into the district centre. But the Taleban took the elders away and then destroyed the building with bulldozers, at about 11 at night.”



The Taleban’s defiance of the Afghan government and foreign military has prompted a panicked exodus from the district.



“On the night after the Taleban came, there was no one in the town,” said Abdul Bari, a Musa Qala resident. “It was just me and the jackals.”



Abdul Rashid, who fled to a refugee camp near the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, said, “I left Musa Qala [on February 4]. Everyone was leaving their houses, their lands, their shops, because they were afraid that there would be NATO bombing like there has been in the past, when NATO was attacking everywhere and lots of people were killed.”



Two bombs fell on February 4, destroying a passenger car, said residents. Many media reports said Mullah Abdul Ghafoor, the Taleban leader who spearheaded the takeover, was killed.



But Mullah Torjan, another Taleban commander now in Musa Qala, denies that Ghafoor is dead.



“There was a bomb, and four Talebs were killed,” he said. “But Mullah Ghafoor was not among them.”



Mahbubshah saw the bomb fall, and went to examine the damage.



“I was standing on the road, and I saw a green Corolla,” he said. “Then I heard a bomb, and the car was hit. When I went to see what had happened, I saw six bodies inside. They were completely burned.”



Mahbubshah could not tell whether the passengers were Taleban or civilian, although he saw that the car had private license plates. The second bomb, he said, landed harmlessly in a field.



Provincial officials are braced for a flood of refugees from Musa Qala. According to Abdul Zahir, a member of the Helmand provincial council, Governor Assadullah Wafa has made arrangements for approximately 1,500 families in a refugee camp close to the capital.



“We have tents and other facilities for the refugees in the Mukhtar camp,” said Zahir. “There will be room for the new families.”



No one knows how long the refugees may have to make the Mukhtar camp their home.



According to Afghan presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi, the government has not yet decided what action to take.



“The government had an agreement with the elders, and they were controlling Musa Qala,” he said. “But the Taleban broke that agreement. The government is serious about Musa Qala, but we are trying to solve the problem with the minimum of casualties among the local population.”



The Taleban deny that they were the ones to scupper the truce. According to Torjan, NATO fired first, in a bombing raid the previous week that left Mullah Ghafoor’s brother dead. The international forces said they did carry out that strike, but insisted took place outside the exclusion zone around Musa Qala agreed as part of the truce, AFP news agency reported.



“We respect the elders - we are their children. Our action was against NATO, because they bombed us in Musa Qala,” he said. The elders were removed because they failed to stop NATO from attacking the Taleban, he added.



“Sometimes it seems like the elders are working for NATO,” complained Torjon.



But Governor Wafa insists that it was the Taleban who broke faith.



“The Taleban broke the agreement. That is a fact,” he said. “And we warned them from the air that they have to leave the district as soon as possible. Whatever happens is the Taleban’s fault.”



Fliers dropped from planes are not going to make the Taleban to cut and run, said Torjan.



“We are not afraid of anyone, NATO or the government,” he said. “We will not listen to their warning, we will fight them as long as we live.”



The taking of the town could not have come at a worse time for General David Richards, the British NATO chief who handed over his command to his American counterpart, General Dan McNeill on February 4.



General Richards had hailed the Musa Qala deal as a central achievement of his nine-month tenure as NATO chief. Multiple media reports suggest that General McNeill may be less inclined to broker deals that give the Taleban breathing-room.



But most residents of the district favoured the agreement, saying that they welcomed any measure that would stop the fighting and leave them in peace.



“The agreement made us happy,” said Mohammad Karim. “We were able to live in peace. We just do not know what happened.”



For those who have opted to stay, life is quiet, if full of inconvenience.



“All the shops are closed,” grumbled Mahbubshah. “I can’t find cigarettes anywhere.”



IWPR has initiated a training programme in Helmand province, and is working with journalists in Lashkar Gah and elsewhere. This report is a compilation of their reporting.