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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 15:29 GMT
Tough steps on road to Afghan peace
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

The move towards peace in Afghanistan is involving some difficult decisions for international forces in the country.

General David Richards
Force was a major part of General David Richards' strategy

Musa Qala is one small place in one Afghan province, but it is at the heart of a controversial British strategy to try to end the fighting and get on with the task of rebuilding and developing Afghanistan.

Last week the Taleban drove in and took over control of the town and their flag is flying over a compound that British troops once defended for months.

Last summer it was a town in northern Helmand at the centre of the fighting, where the Taleban were strong and where British troops held off wave after wave of attack.

They were under siege, and the small government compound was almost overrun by Taleban fighters as it became increasingly difficult to re-supply the troops with rations and ammunition.

Major operations were launched simply to keep them going, bombs were dropped close to the front gate, a huge number of hand grenades were used - in all, seven British soldiers died in Musa Qala district in the long and bloody summer.

Local elders

In October the troops pulled out of the town in a peace deal, which began with the commander of British forces flying in for a desert meeting, and ended with an exhausted group of soldiers hitching a lift out on the back of local trucks.

The deal was that Taleban fighters and British troops would move out of a 5km exclusion zone around the district centre, and the local elders who brokered the deal would provide security for the town and for the aid agencies who would bring in redevelopment projects.

For four months there was peace, but the deal split British and American views in Afghanistan.

The Taleban propaganda said the British had been forced out and had retreated.

Nato said it allowed them to "redeploy" their forces to be more mobile and to take the offensive.

Many Americans said it was a deal with the Taleban and it would simply store up problems for later.

So with the Taleban flag flying over Musa Qala who was right?

That is still unproven, with Nato hanging on to the hope that the elders will make the Taleban leave, but it is looking increasingly likely that military action will be required.

Auxiliary police

The new Helmand governor Haji Asadullah Wafa has big plans for his province. He does not support the Musa Qala deal, but only because it does not go far enough.

He calls his proposal "protocols" - plans which local elders must sign up to and be responsible for.

Essentially it is the same idea but it demands more from them and includes the right of the Nato forces to enter a district centre whenever they want, unlike the deal in Musa Qala.

He plans groups of auxiliary police being trained from each district to become a local security force and give the elders a chance to recommend who they want as their district police chief.

But it mainly comes down to where the mission is going from here.

Air strikes

Many worry the new American general Dan McNeill may have more emphasis on force and less on deal-making or reconstruction.

However, outgoing International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) commander General David Richards gave the approval for a huge number of air strikes in his nine months - force was a major part of his strategy even if the mission was to create the conditions for more development and better governance.

Talking appears to be the most sensible way of bringing peace but critics of these deals ask if soldiers really know who they are talking to - and with the tribal nature of Afghanistan it is really difficult to know what other agenda people may have.

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