Message to the Politicians - Let the Soldiers Get on with their Job!
British military commanders have struck a remarkable deal with the people of a war-torn town in southern Afghanistan to pull their men out in return for a Taliban undertaking to do the same. They agreed to a proposal from the elders of the town of Musa Qala for a “cessation of fighting” on condition the Taliban could be persuaded not to take over the town. The deal, which commanders insist is “a cessation of fighting” not a ceasefire, was thrashed out in a series of secret talks in a remote desert location south-east of Musa Qala. It is seen as a solution to the intractable problem of the British “platoon houses”, remote outposts set up in northern Helmand.
They agreed to a proposal from the elders of the town of Musa Qala for a “cessation of fighting” on condition the Taliban could be persuaded not to take over the town.The deal, which commanders insist is “a cessation of fighting” not a ceasefire, was thrashed out in a series of secret talks in a remote desert location south-east of Musa Qala. It is seen as a solution to the intractable problem of the British “platoon houses”, remote outposts set up to protect four of the Afghan government district centres in the north of Helmand province.
The platoon houses, based in the district centre compounds in Musa Qala, Sangin, Nawzad and Kajaki, have seen British troops involved in the fiercest fighting since the 1950-53 Korean War. All 16 of the British soldiers killed by enemy fire in southern Afghanistan have died defending the platoon houses, eight of them in Musa Qala alone. British commanders are said to have recommended almost 180 of their men for gallantry medals, including "several" VCs. The deal was first mooted by representatives of the 2,000-strong population of the town of Musa Qala, who saw it as a way of ending the destruction of their town.
“The elders asked if there was a way to stop the fighting,” a senior British officer said. “They were concerned that their people couldn’t get access to the shops and bazaar.” Around 400 people living in the immediate area of the district centre compound have been forced to evacuate their homes, most of which have been destroyed in the fighting, the officer said.
“The town elders wanted to persuade the Taliban to stop and felt that if we pulled out, the Taliban attacks on the government district centres would stop.” Inaccurate Taliban mortar and rocket fire has destroyed houses around the British base while a number of civilians have been killed or forced to flee after being caught in the crossfire. So the elders of Musa Qala approached the British offering to persuade the Taliban to keep out of their town and protect the Afghan government building themselves. Brig Ed Butler, commander of the British task force, flew into Musa Qala 18 days ago, protected only by his military police close-protection team, to attend a Shura, or council, of town elders.
Butler was taken to the Shura of village elders in the desert south-east of Musa Qala where the carefully formulated proposals were made. The British commander told the Afghans that he was prepared to back a “cessation of fighting” if they could guarantee that the Taliban would leave and not try to occupy the town. If they could get the Taliban to agree, he would pull out the British troops, replacing them with Afghan government forces who would protect the district centres. But if the Taliban reneged on the deal, the British would make a major assault on the town to drive them off.
If successful, it will allow the British to revert to their original plans of creating secure development zones around the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and the other main town of Gireshk. Lt-Gen David Richards, the Nato commander, has said he wants to withdraw from the platoon houses which are acting like “a magnet” for the Taliban and wasting valuable resources.
But until the Musa Qala elders came forward with their plan, his attempts to replace the British troops with Afghan forces were held up by concerns it would look like a victory for the Taliban. Last week, at a second Shura held in the desert south-east of Musa Qala, the deal was struck when the elders told Butler the Taliban had agreed to stay out of the town.
That gave British commanders precisely what they want, allowing them to use the British troops to build up secure zones around Lashkar Gah and Gireshk where reconstruction can begin. The deal – and the careful avoidance of the word ceasefire - allows both sides to disengage without losing face, an important aspect in the Afghan psyche.
Polls suggest that 70 per cent of the population will back whichever of Nato or the Taliban can show they are the strongest. The Taliban have lost large numbers of fighters in near suicide attacks against the heavy fire put down by British troops in the platoon houses and Apache helicopter gunships. There are also signs that local discontent over the destructive fighting has split Afghan elements within the Taliban from insurgents linked to al-Qaeda, who include a number of foreign fighters. When a suicide bomber, believed to be an Arab, killed 18 people in Lashkar Gah last week, local Taliban posted leaflets blaming the attack on “foreign Taliban”.
“As a result of the initial Shura, the attacks have gone right down,” a British officer said. “There is an obvious danger that the Taliban could make the deal and then renege on it.” Fighting in Afghanistan traditionally takes place in the summer and the Taliban could simply use the “cessation of fighting” to regroup and come again next year. “They might also use it to mount more sustained attacks on other district centres like the ones in Sangin or Nawzad,” the officer said.
Taliban attacks against US forces on the border with Pakistan have tripled since a ceasefire signed between the government in Islamabad and pro-Taliban tribesmen. But 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,” the 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.”
So far so good, but the whole policy of putting troops into remote outposts in the north - and the tragedy of 16 British soldiers who have died as a direct result - have provided graphic evidence as to why politicians should not interfere in the business of soldiering. Is it too much to hope that British commanders will now be allowed to get on with their job?