1st Lieutenant Joshua Hartley, Headquarters & Supply Company Commander, 1/2 Marines, conducts a briefing prior to a patrol through Musa Qala’s bazaar. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.
A walk through the main bazaar in Musa Qala offers a study in contrasts. The shabby construction of the mud-walled stalls and the pitted dirt of the sidewalks juxtapose sections with an opulent supply and careful presentation of goods: neatly placed bowls of ancient spices, symmetric racks of colorful textiles, rows of Western drinks, and even some electronics.
Business is alive and well in Musa Qala. The dizzying array of items for sale whispers about the larger economy, the regional and international distribution and trading networks that allow a vibrant merchant class to thrive in the midst of the common deprivation and squalor of many residents.
The interaction between American Marines and local vendors and passersby offers contrasts of another sort. The Americans are dispersed and alert, with heads on a swivel, scrutinizing every person and vehicle as a potential missile. The Afghan citizens are nonchalant, gliding with lackadaisical grace when absolutely forced to move from shade into the blistering heat. The Americans offer occasional thickly accented, enthusiastic greetings in Pashto. Some of the locals respond in kind, others turn up their noses and ignore them. The Westerners are engaged. With the exception of bursts of Dickensian enthusiasm from begging, pickpocketing children, the Afghans seem apathetic. It’s not hard to fathom why: it’s 115 degrees, after all. And many are jaded by decades of war, Taliban rule, and unfulfilled promises by foreigners.
The bazaar lies in the heart of the Musa Qala District Center, a bustling hub of business and government that contains the greatest density of people and buildings within the larger district. In addition to the bazaar, the district center boasts the Musa Qala District School, a brand new Afghan National Army headquarters built by ISAF, ongoing construction of a district government building, and the ruins of the Grand Mosque, destroyed during fighting between the Taliban and the British. The permanent market, along with a larger weekly bazaar that springs up during the summer months in the middle of the valley’s dry riverbed, make Musa Qala a regional trading stop.
As one moves north or south from the district center, the other half of the economy becomes apparent: along the wadi lies a vibrant sea of green amidst the desolate mountains and ridges that flank the east and west of the valley. The rectangular north-south district is filled with small farming villages and compounds growing a range of crops for subsistence and distribution. One plant looms large: Papaver somniferum, or opium poppy. Corn, nuts, wheat, and other legal farming products are dwarfed by the local economy’s inextricable tie to poppy cultivation, and the illegal opium that is its byproduct.
After this reporter observed a range of interactions between Americans and Afghans at the bazaar and a local school, from casually friendly to dismissive, one teen boy shared his opinion of the Marines.
“I like them,” he said through an interpreter’s translation. “The Marines talk to us. I like them better than the British.”
“The British shouted at us.”
The British experience
An Afghan child’s distillation of the contentious story of ISAF involvement in Musa Qala is echoed in more complex terms by civilian and military officials, but only under pressure, and usually without attribution. Most Americans deftly sidestep discussion of the British mission from 2006 to 2010, either claiming ignorance or emphasizing that they’d “like to focus on the present.”
In April 2006, a “Helmand Task Force” of 3,300 troops, mostly British Airborne, was deployed to the province to combat a resurgent Taliban waging a campaign of offensives and assassinations to destabilize the government. Task Force Helmand’s mission was to conduct a broad spectrum of counterinsurgency operations, from finding and killing insurgents to reconstruction projects aimed at gathering local support. But the strength of the Taliban counteroffensive quickly turned the campaign into a series of highly kinetic battles and defensive sieges, an overall trend exemplified by the remarkable recent history of Musa Qala.
On June 16, 2006, a small British force was inserted into a compound in the heart of the Musa Qala District Center, a former hotel and Taliban jail. The unit was assigned to protect local government authorities and augment a small force of local police officers. Within weeks, the Taliban tested the defenders by massing and then assaulting the site. Though they were repelled, this battle was only the beginning of months of attacks against undermanned British and Danish troops tasked with defending the compound.
In September 2006, the British and the Taliban acknowledged an impasse by accepting a truce brokered by elders of Musa Qala: each side agreed to withdraw from the district center. The agreement, combined with reported British efforts to bribe Taliban commanders in Helmand, was met with harsh criticism from some coalition critics, who believed these actions projected weakness and empowered the Taliban. Within three months, claiming that a US airstrike violated the agreement, approximately 200 Taliban retook the district center and quickly moved to establish radical Islamist rule over the area. The withdrawal of British forces, coupled with the Taliban’s eventual ability to reclaim the area, cemented Musa Qala as a proud symbol of insurgent resistance, analogous on a smaller scale to the cultural resonance Fallujah once held in Iraq.
“Because they took and held Musa Qala for so long, it’s symbolic,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mike Manning, commander of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, now responsible for the district. “And the Taliban continues to try to infiltrate the district center today.”
The battle for Musa Qala and early attempts at counterinsurgency
On Dec. 5, 2007, a combination of British, American, and Afghan troops launched an offensive to retake Musa Qala, dubbed “Operation Mar Karadad (Snakepit).” An Afghan Army brigade, a battalion of US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, elements from the British 40 Commando Royal Marines Regiment, the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, the Scots Guards, and Danish forces retook the district center and surrounding area in less than a week. The majority of the Taliban fled in the face of overwhelming firepower arrayed against them. It’s commonly asserted that the defection of Mullah Mullah Abdul Salaam Alizai, a “reconciled Taliban commander,” also contributed to the victory.
British forces resumed responsibility for the district center and attempted to stabilize the area, meeting with mixed success. They created a “security bubble” of relative calm within the populous middle of the district center. But counterinsurgency efforts were plagued by continued Taliban harassment, limited British manpower and patrolling tempo, and failure to garner widespread local cooperation. Some American officials attribute the latter to a combination of having corrupt Afghan government partners, the inability of the British to rapidly deliver reconstruction and aid, and poor tactics.
The failure of both the Afghan government and the British military to deliver basic services and reconstruction is cited by US civilian and military officials as a significant factor. After his defection to the government of Afghanistan (often referred to as GIRoA, an acronym for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan), Mullah Salaam was appointed district governor. The former Taliban commander maintained a terrible relationship with British commanders, and soon established a reputation for corruption and ineffectiveness deemed obscene even by local standards. An internal ISAF document very euphemistically describes the shady warlord as an “ineffective governor [who] is more readily concerned with his own personal affairs than advancing the interests of the district.”
The local unpopularity of Salaam’s corruption was complemented by British inability to quickly inject discernible aid and development into Musa Qala.
“When we arrived in March, I found a sign the Brits had put up that sort of encapsulates [the problem],'” said Manning. “It said, ‘Promise Everything, Deliver Nothing.’ The British promised to build a bridge across the wadi (river) three-plus years ago. I came to find out that no contract was ever submitted for the project.”
Counterinsurgency doctrine stresses ‘combined effects,’ stipulating that aid and reconstruction must be rapidly injected into a recently cleared area to legitimize counterinsurgent and government forces in the eyes of the people. Marines are now making their own attempts to hasten reconstruction.
“I’ve told my men, if we are in the AO [area of operations] 90 days and haven’t delivered anything, we are dead in the water,” said Manning.
Some US military personnel offer theories about the slow pace of British reconstruction efforts.
“When we got here, they didn’t have a Civil Affairs Team, which allows you to do the small stuff quickly,” offered HM3 Erik Marker, a medical corpsman and project manager with Team One, Detachment 10.1, 11th Marines Civil Affairs Detachment, responsible for civil affairs in Musa Qala. “They had engineers, so their focus was the big stuff. They knew their job well, but they weren’t civil affairs.”
Others cite a slower operational pace and less projection of forces into a smaller area. Many Americans temper or reject criticism of their predecessors by noting that the British are “good soldiers” and had fewer resources – they employed about half the manpower currently enjoyed by the US Marines, which limited the ability to hold areas that had been cleared. And one civilian anthropologist who declined to be named for this story believes there may have been a problem in the locals’ cultural memory of historical British involvement in Afghanistan.
“Afghans remember British history in Afghanistan negatively,” remarked the official, who works to assess local opinion. “There is a word that is used to label all foreigners: ‘Agriaz.’ It simply means, ‘the English,’ but [the connotation] is xenophobic.”
During the handover of the area to US forces, the British Chief of Staff glumly admitted to Manning, “We’ve forgotten how to do counterinsurgency.”
This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Musa Qala. Next is US Marines battle the Taliban for control of Musa Qala.