Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The British defy Karzai and make a truce with the Taliban

With losses higher than expected in a fight that was tougher than anyone had been able to forecast, the commander of the British 16 Air Assault Brigade has done the only thing that makes sense and backed away from the platoon house at Musa Qala in Afghanistan. In return he has a deal with the local population that the Taliban will do the same.

BRITISH troops battling the Taliban are to withdraw from one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan after agreeing a secret deal with the local people.


It has now been agreed the troops will quietly pull out of Musa Qala in return for the Taliban doing the same. The compound is one of four district government offices in the Helmand province that are being guarded by British troops.

Although soldiers on the ground may welcome the agreement, it is likely to raise new questions about troop deployment. Last month Sir Richard Dannatt, the new head of the British Army, warned that soldiers in Afghanistan were fighting at the limit of their capacity and could only “just” cope with the demands.

When British troops were first sent to Afghanistan it was hoped they would help kick-start the country’s reconstruction. But under pressure from President Hamid Karzai they were forced to defend Afghan government “district centres” at Musa Qala, Sangin, Nowzad and Kajaki.
The idea of defending the four district centres was opposed by the NATO commander in Afghanistan and most other force commanders.

The move — opposed by Lieutenant-General David Richards, the Nato commander in Afghanistan — turned the four remote British bases into what Richards called “magnets” for the Taliban. All 16 of the British soldiers killed in action in southern Afghanistan have died at Musa Qala, Sangin or Nowzad.

The soldiers risk sniper fire and full-scale assaults from experienced Taliban fighters who can then blend into the local population after each attack.
The British are willing to risk having the Taliban regroup over the winter in an attempt to stop the fighting around the villages.

... there are clear signs of the commitment of the people of Musa Qala to the deal, with one Talib who stood out against it reportedly lynched by angry locals.

“There is always a risk,” one officer said. “But if it works, it will provide a good template for the rest of Helmand. The people of Sangin are already saying they want a similar deal.”
The British appear to be defying Afghan president Hamid Karzai. It's about time.

NATO troops took over an incredible mess in Helmand. The US had about 100 special forces troops stationed in the area before the British took over. The lack of reconstruction and paltry military presence allowed the Taliban to become fully established and gain a foothold in the area. Karzai's insistence that the district centres be defended against Taliban forces gave them a target.

In the meantime, Canadian defence minister Gordon O'Connor is pressuring other NATO participants to remove the national caveats which restrict some countries' troops from conducting offensive operations.

That's all well and good, but did O'Connor have any idea at all that the British were about to engage in a truce with the Taliban? Clearly the British want to deal with the war in Afghanistan differently. One might think the British would have kept Canadian commanders informed.

Recent weeks have seen reports come out of the UK in which British army defence staff had advised British Defence Secretary Des Browne against the Afghanistan deployment and that the British army is "just" coping with the task. A recent BBC poll, indicating that 53% of the population is against the use of British troops in Afghanistan is also reflecting a common dissatisfaction with the situation among many western countries.

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