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Last Updated: Monday, 10 December 2007, 19:14 GMT
Why the battle for Musa Qala matters
By David Loyn
BBC News, Kabul

Afghan troops (file picture)
The Afghan army may struggle to hold on to Musa Qala
Holding the town of Musa Qala has taken on symbolic importance for both sides.

It is "iconic", in the words of British Defence Secretary Des Browne.

Now it has fallen, British troops will keep a small presence there, but the main defence of the town and the surrounding area will be led by the Afghan army.

The decision to take the town at this time fits into a wider strategy of trying to restrict Taleban movement during the winter months.

No-one expects a pause in the fighting in the winter, as used to be traditional in Afghanistan.

But the thinking is that in the harsher weather with limited availability of food, the Taleban will have less ability to mount a counter-attack.

Local support

The assault on Musa Qala comes at the same time as Afghan and international forces try to control more of the ground further south-west, where the three provinces of Helmand, Farah and Nimruz join together.

The aim of the twin offensives is to "squeeze" the Taleban, but it will only work if at the same time the Afghan government can guarantee security to the people whose farms and houses have been fought over.

Taleban fighters in Musa Qala - 6/12/2007
The Taleban have local support in Musa Qala

British troops came under sustained assault in the town for several months last year, before pulling out under a deal brokered by tribal elders.

The Afghan army is better than it was, but is still not a reliable force, and is far less motivated than the Taleban.

The Taleban also have significant local support, not just among drug warlords who have a strategic alliance with them against the international presence, but also among local people.

The damage to property and loss of life because of the continued fighting means that the side that is seen as being able to offer stability and protection will prevail in the long term.

One of the tribal elders at a meeting held by the British ahead of the operation to retake Musa Qala told them that the "Taleban are our brothers, our nephews, our family".

This gives the Taleban a significant advantage as the key local power-brokers weigh up their options.

In the Afghan way they will back the side that they consider has the better chance of success, and despite the austerity of their religious practices, the Taleban have an in-built advantage over the national army, and certainly over foreign forces.

Not over

In this region the Afghans have long memories of British military engagement during several campaigns in the 19th Century.

The British are now using some of the tactics of their forebears in engaging with the Afghans on their terms, working with the conservative grain of the country

For their part, the British are now using some of the tactics of their forebears in engaging with the Afghans on their terms, working with the conservative grain of the country.

There are far more diplomats at the embassy who speak local languages. They are attempting to understand where tribal loyalties lie beneath the democratic structures imposed after the Taleban were deposed in 2001.

This policy led to some success before the battle for Musa Qala in detaching local commanders with their men from the main body of the Taleban.

There is one other significant change that will make a difference to the way the war is fought during the winter. International forces are now linking the counter-insurgency strategy much more closely with their fight against the narco-economy.

This does not mean that British troops will eradicate poppy crops, but it does mean that military force will be used against drug barons more than before, and there will be more of an attempt to understand the direct links between the insurgency and the drugs trade.

The battle for Musa Qala is won. The campaign has a long way to go.

Aerial map of Musa Qala



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