Troops Patrol Former Taliban Town

Saturday, December 15, 2007

By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press Writer


MUSA QALA, Afghanistan — 

A week ago the Taliban controlled this southern town and its dozens of heroin-processing labs. Today, hundreds of Afghan and British troops patrol the streets as engineers build new military outposts, attempting to fortify the town before a possible Taliban counterattack.

The town of Musa Qala is situated in the northern section of Helmand province _ the world's largest poppy-growing region and scene of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year. Militants overran the town last winter and held it for 10 months, until Afghan, British and American troops retook it.

As they secure Musa Qala, British and Afghan troops continue to pursue Taliban, Arab and Chechen fighters on the outskirts of the town and into the neighboring districts, said Brigadier Andrew Mackay, the commander of British troops in southern Afghanistan.

"Securing Musa Qala is a major blow to the Taliban," Mackay said as he rode on the back of an Afghan National Army truck through the streets of the town. "The most important part of this operation is the reconstruction and development ... that is how the operation should be judged."

Officials say clinics, schools and a mosque will be built, as will military outposts, to let residents know the Afghan army and British soldiers are there to stay. Extending governance in the area where the Taliban ran courts and collected taxes is crucial.

The Afghan government plans to hire some 1,500 Musa Qala residents, paying them $20 a day to do cleanup work and construction, though very little of the town suffered damage in the fighting.

"It is our intent to make people believe that the government of Afghanistan is here to stay, and the (Afghan National Army) providing the security," said Capt. Tim Brewer, 28, from Southampton, Britain.

Although the militants were chased out of town they will still try to come back into Musa Qala, Mackay said.

"What is very important is that the population does not allow them to, with our help," he said.

Engineers were already at work building an Afghan military outpost in the city, while British troops set up their base on the town's outskirts.

Afghan boys, and men in black and blue turbans, loitered in the street Saturday as Afghan and British troops conducted foot patrols through town.

Three barefoot girls in flowered dresses sat in the portico of an unfinished shop, following the soldiers with their eyes. None waved hello to the passing troops.

Other soldiers _ many caked in the fine dust that permeates the region _ were stationed on rooftops overlooking the dessert surrounding them and the rocky hills to the north.

As a reminder of the dangers that troops face here, two rockets slammed into Musa Qala on Saturday, causing no casualties.

Afghan officials say hundreds of Taliban were either killed or wounded in the operation to recapture Musa Qala and subsequent fighting in the region.

"Tactically they are very good at fighting and they know the ground, and that always helps them," Mackay told a dozen journalists who visited the town on a trip organized by NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

Mackay wouldn't say how many militants were killed in the battle. "A lot of them," he said. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people live in Musa Qala, with another 25,000 or so residents living in the outlying areas.

The U.S.-led coalition on Saturday said that two Taliban commanders from the Musa Qala area _ a Mullah Faizullah and a Mullah Tor Jan _ were killed in recent airstrikes. Faizullah was said to be a deputy governor of Helmand province for the Taliban's shadow government. Jan was a commander in the Musa Qala area, the coalition said.

The town's former district center lay in ruins, shattered by the Taliban during their February attack on the town. Next to it, a new mosque will be built, as will a new school and road, said Brig. Gen. Ghulam Muhiddin Ghori, a top Afghan army commander in Helmand.

Inside the courtyard of the town's new district center, Ghori showed reporters two dozen confiscated sacks of opium cultivated from poppies in the region. A dozen handmade explosive devices and mortar shells also sat nearby.

The Afghan flag flew over the town's center, where Ghori said the Taliban used to hang suspected spies. Bullet holes marked the walls of shops lining the streets _ which were all closed _ in the middle of town.

Ghori said the recent operation had three aims: to remove Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from Musa Qala, to bring long-term security to the region and to provide reconstruction and development.

Standing in the town center, Mackay pointed toward Ghori, a former officer in the 1980s pro-Soviet Afghan army and Col. Abdul Salam, a bearded former mujahedeen rebel who used to fight against Soviet troops and its communist Afghan allies, as an example of how Afghan alliances can change.

"Only in Afghanistan can this happen," Mackay said.

"Maybe one day Taliban will also be with us," Ghori said in English, and was met with rapturous laughter.

Elsewhere, a rocket landed in a crowd of civilians near Kabul's police headquarters Saturday, and a truck full of rockets smuggled into the city under a pile of hay exploded nearby moments later, officials said. At least five people were killed and 24 wounded, the Interior and Health ministries said.

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