Friday, March 12, 2010

A life more ordinary in Musa Qala

Musa Qala, in northern Helmand, will shortly become the first British base in Afghanistan to be handed on to US Marines.

BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt visited the town to see whether there are any lessons to be learned.

Back in 2006, it seemed unlikely that the Taliban's then stronghold of Musa Qala, a centre of the opium trade, would be persuaded to listen to the voice of the Nato coalition and the Afghan government.

But the defection of a local Taliban commander, Mullah Salaam, helped turn the tide after a controversial deal between British troops and tribal elders to keep the insurgents out had collapsed.

The town was recaptured in fierce fighting between the Taliban and the Nato coalition and Afghan forces in Operation Snakebite in December 2007, with Mullah Salaam ready and waiting to be district governor.

He may not be the most effective administrator, but he remains a rare symbol of Taliban re-integration.

At the shura or gathering in a small bare room with the the local police chief, Commander Koka, and the local Afghan Army head, Colonel Rasoul Kandahari, they talk out - rather than shoot out - their disputes.

That in itself is progress. At the same shura, the British military commander here, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Fullerton, and the rest of his team - including police mentors, an intelligence officer and a political officer - play the tricky roles of referee and mentor simultaneously.

Different tactics

At their latest meeting, Mullah Salaam is complaining that the Household Cavalry Regiment Battlegroup, which has been here for nearly six months, simply isn't violent enough.

He says that the Russians would have been much tougher with the remaining insurgents to the north and south of the town, and gone in all guns blazing.

But Captain Roly Spiller, the headquarters' British intelligence officer now on his second tour of Afghanistan, is unfazed by the governor's complaints.

"He spent his youth fighting the Russians, and he's used to the Russian way of flattening villages that got in their way, whereas we have taken the approach of waiting until a village is ready to fall, without forcing fighting in the streets," he says.

"It may mean slower progress but it does mean that when we have taken villages, it's been a lot easier to manage them after that."

The build-up of the Afghan police and Afghan National Army here, under local leaders who are competent and - crucially - not corrupt, has also helped create something approaching peace, at least in the town centre.

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