Taliban Continue to Control Musa Qala
USA Today
By Jason Straziuso, Associated Press
October 28, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — Days after Taliban fighters overran Musa Qala in February a U.S. commander pledged that Western troops would take it back. Nine months later, the town is still Taliban territory, a symbol of the West's struggles to control the poppy-growing south.

But a string of recent battles, won overwhelmingly by American Special Forces, signal a renewed U.S. interest in the symbolic Taliban stronghold, and an Afghan army commander on Sunday said talks are being held with Musa Qala's tribal leaders to help win back the town from the Arab, Chechen and Uzbek fighters who roam its streets.

U.S. Special Forces soldiers accompanied by Afghan troops killed about 80 Taliban fighters during a six-hour battle outside Musa Qala on Saturday, the latest in a series of increasingly bloody engagements in the region. Special Forces troops have killed more than 250 militants around Musa Qala over the last 60 days, according to coalition statements.

"Musa Qala is part of the overall concept here, denying the Taliban the ability to control northern Helmand," said Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. "Our goal is to stop them from accomplishing that."

"We're in Musa Qala and we're going to stay there. We're going to continue to do patrols and when we find Taliban, we'll continue to engage them," he said.

It was only days after the Taliban overran Musa Qala last Feb. 1 that a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Tom Collins, said NATO and Afghan forces would take back the town "at a time and place that is most advantageous."

That time could finally be coming. Saturday's fight in Helmand province — the world's largest poppy growing region — is at least the fifth major battle in the area since Sept. 1.

And the top Afghan army commander in Helmand, Brig. Gen. Ghulam Muhiddin Ghori, revealed for the first time on Sunday that negotiations are being held with the town's tribal leaders.

"Afghan and coalition forces have surrounded the Musa Qala district center. We have started negotiations with tribal leaders there to take over Musa Qala from the Taliban," Ghori told The Associated Press. "The tribal leaders are also worried about these Taliban because the foreign fighters — Arabs, Chechens, Baluchs and Uzbeks — they are in Musa Qala."

The foreign fighters are running training camps near Musa Qala to teach militants how to carry out suicide and roadside bomb attacks, Ghori said. But he said no big military operations are being carried out to overtake the town itself because of a fear that many civilians would be killed.

"That's why we're working through negotiations with tribal leaders," he said.

Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that handed over security responsibilities to Afghan elders. The deal has been implicitly criticized as a failure by some U.S. commanders in Afghanistan.

The vast majority of Western forces in Helmand are British, though U.S. Special Forces troops are also active in the province. A British military spokesman couldn't be reached for comment Sunday.

Situated in northern Helmand, Musa Qala and the region around it have been the front line of the bloodiest fighting this year. It is also the heartland of Afghanistan's illicit opium poppy farms.

Violence in Afghanistan this year has been the deadliest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. More than 5,200 people have died this year due to the insurgency, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.

The latest Musa Qala battle began Saturday when Taliban insurgents attacked a combined U.S. coalition and Afghan patrol with rockets and gunfire, prompting the combined force to call in attack aircraft, resulting in "almost seven dozen Taliban fighters killed," the U.S.-led coalition said.

The coalition said four bombs were dropped on a trench line filled with fighters, resulting in most of the deaths. It said there were no immediate reports of civilian casualties.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, declined to talk about Musa Qala at a news conference in Kabul on Sunday. Speaking on a separate topic, he said it could take between 18 months and two years for Afghan forces to be able to conduct major operations on their own.

Rodriguez said Afghan forces excel at small unit tactics and coordinating with the Afghan people but still need to improve their command structure, the use of air power, their logistics support and medical capabilities. He declined to talk about the fighting in Musa Qala.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force, meanwhile, said an investigation into allegations of civilian casualties following an attack in Wardak province on Oct. 22 found that no civilians had been killed. A provincial council member at the time said 12 civilians had been killed, but ISAF said the investigation found that the allegations were "without merit."

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