The battle for the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala in the southern Afghan province of Helmand is well underway. Officially launched on December 7, international and Afghan forces have prepped the battlefield for well over a month. A British armored column launched a feint to the outskirts of the town in mid-November and leaflets have been dropped on the town warning civilians to flee the impending attack.
The final assault on Musa Qala began after the Afghan government convinced a key Taliban tribal leader to defect. Last month there were reports Mullah Abdul Salaam was seeking to negotiate a deal with the Afghan government. The Times Online reported Salaam has indeed defected to the Afghan government, and “brought with him up to one-third of the fighters who had been defending Musa Qala.”
The BBC reported the attack is occurring from three directions, and US forces will conduct the final strike into the city. Afghan National Army and international troops pushed to the edge of the town at the opening of the battle. A battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division conducted an air assault on the outskirts of the city, while a brigade from the Afghan National Army and elements from the 40 Commando Royal Marines Regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, and the Scots Guards pushed forward in columns.
Two local Taliban commanders, Mullah Matin Akhund and Mullah Rahim Akhund, have been captured since the operation began. Mullah Ikhalas, another local Taliban commander who was behind the kidnapping of an Italian journalist earlier this year, was killed in an airstrike just prior to the kickoff of the operation.
Fighting in northern Helmand province has not been limited to Musa Qala. The Taliban have conducted ambushes and attacks against Afghan and international forces in Nawzad, Girshk, and the Kajaki Dam regions.
The Taliban boast over 2,000 fighters in their ranks, and vow to fight, not flee. “Our lines are so strong that the foreigners will never break them,” a local Taliban commander named Enqiadi told a report from IWPR at the end of November. “The foreigners say they are going to launch a major operation in Musa Qala. We are ready for that. In Musa Qala alone, we have 2,050 fully armed fighters. It will be very easy for us to resist the attack. We want to take the whole province this winter.”
Helmand province has been the hub of the Taliban insurgency in the south since the British negotiated a controversial deal with the Taliban and withdrew from the district center in October 2006. The Taliban consolidated their gains and militarily overran the district center in February 2007 and have been in control ever since.
Afghan and international troops have been fighting fierce battles against the Taliban in the Helmand River Valley, including in Girshk, Musa Qala, Kajaki, Nawzad, and Sangin over the spring, summer, and fall of 2007. Battles have raged in the neighboring provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Farah as the Taliban has attempted to retake the southern provinces. Three senior Taliban leaders — Mullah Dadullah, Mullah Berader, and Qari Faiz Mohammad — have been killed in strikes in Helmand province over the past year alone.