17 people beheaded near Musa Qala
The Guardian and the AP reported that the Taliban beheaded 15 men and two women near the Musa Qala district in northern Helmand province. A Washington Post report claims the atrocity took place in neighboring Kajaki district. The victims' crimes, according to the Musa Qala district governor? A co-ed party:
Fifteen men and two women have been found beheaded in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Officials said the victims were killed by Taliban insurgents as punishment for attending a mixed-sex party with music and dancing.
The bodies were found in a house near the Musa Qala district, 46 miles north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, on Monday, said the district governor Nimatullah, who goes by only one name.
"The victims threw a late-night dance and music party when the Taliban attacked," on Sunday night, Nimatullah told Reuters.
The Washington Post report includes speculation that some of the dead may have been members of the Taliban who started a firefight after arguing with other Taliban fighters over the two women. This incident comes on the heels of the defection of 11 Musa Qala policemen to the Taliban earlier this month:
Eleven Afghan policemen have defected to the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand, officials say.
The men switched sides early on Monday in Musa Qala district, taking with them weapons and three motorcycles, a provincial spokesman told the BBC.
While the beheadings and the police defections may be partly due to the diminished presence of ISAF forces, more significantly, they reflect the continuing presence and influence of the Taliban, the area's tradition of shifting loyalties, and possibly the leadership vacuum created by the loss of Haji Abdul "Koka" Wali, the chief of police for Musa Qala.
Koka was seriously wounded in April by a suicide bomber who penetrated the highly guarded police compound after killing at least three guards and hopping two entry control points. According to Captain Bryan Welles, a Marine who served in the district, Koka gunned down two of the three bombers, but failed to kill the third before the attacker detonated his explosives-filled vest in front of the compound.
The US Marines have executed a reasonably well-resourced, holistic counterinsurgency campaign in the district since March 2010, and their efforts seem to have yielded progress in security and local governance, most notably seen in the expansion of the 'security bubble' that surrounds the district center. But many Marines working in the area believed that the relative stability was closely tied to the strong leadership of Koka, who wielded great local influence and was believed to engender loyalty among members of his police force.
It's important to understand the malleability of loyalty in Helmand, however. An Afghan intelligence official told the BBC that "it appeared the insurgents had infiltrated the local police in Musa Qala some time" before the defection earlier this month.
In August 2010, four prisoners escaped from the jail in the Musa Qala district center, after one guard left their cell unlocked and another guard left his weapon near the detainees. Two Marines, an Irish security contractor, and three insurgents were killed in the ensuing gun battle.
While an ISAF investigation found the cause of the August 2010 jailbreak to be negligence on the part of the guards -- and it's certainly possible, given how many of them smoke hash -- it's notable that Koka was on leave during the incident and one of the detainees in the jail at the time was a cop who had been arrested for shooting at his commander. Also notable is that Koka himself has a history that includes fighting against the Taliban for many years before switching sides to fight with them ... before again switching sides to fight against them after the US invasion of Afghanistan. The former police commander originally changed sides to take the place of a relative who had been conscripted by the Taliban, and this flexibility in loyalty is not an uncommon custom in the area.
These factors, along with the recent spate of green-on-blue insider attacks across Afghanistan, with the majority occurring in Helmand, cast doubt on the stability of Musa Qala's police force as it is charged with fighting the Taliban after ISAF withdrawal.
Time will soon reveal the degree to which security will unravel in Musa Qala as the Taliban attempt to reassert their power. A lot of young men with weapons are undoubtedly carefully evaluating which side they are on, in the face of Western withdrawal and a local police leadership vacuum. During my trip to the area in 2010, I asked a boy of maybe 11 or 12 years of age in the Musa Qala district center what he thought about the police. He responded that he wanted to be a cop, but added a caveat to the effect of "but only if they are (remain) strong."
UPDATE: Reuters via The Telegraph quotes witnesses who claim that the attack was indeed retribution for 'immorality,' and that family members of some of the slain victims took part in the atrocity:
Elders from the district where the massacre took place in Roshanabad said the young men and women had held the gathering in defiance of threats from their own village and the militants.
All had been shot dead or beheaded by their own villagers and insurgents enraged by their "immorality", they told the Reuters news agency.
Enraged family members of the two girls were among the attackers, said Mohammad Gul. They were backed by about five Taliban members from a nearby insurgent stronghold called Baghnai.