British & the Taliban

The Sunday Times October 01, 2006

British troops in secret truce with the Taliban

BRITISH troops battling the Taliban are to withdraw from one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan after agreeing a secret deal with the local people. Over the past two months British soldiers have come under sustained attack defending a remote mud-walled government outpost in the town of Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan. Eight have been killed there.


It has now been agreed the troops will quietly pull out of Musa Qala in return for the Taliban doing the same. The compound is one of four district government offices in the Helmand province that are being guarded by British troops.

Although soldiers on the ground may welcome the agreement, it is likely to raise new questions about troop deployment. Last month Sir Richard Dannatt, the new head of the British Army, warned that soldiers in Afghanistan were fighting at the limit of their capacity and could only “just” cope with the demands.

When British troops were first sent to Afghanistan it was hoped they would help kick-start the country’s reconstruction. But under pressure from President Hamid Karzai they were forced to defend Afghan government “district centres” at Musa Qala, Sangin, Nowzad and Kajaki.

The move — opposed by Lieutenant-General David Richards, the Nato commander in Afghanistan — turned the four remote British bases into what Richards called “magnets” for the Taliban. All 16 of the British soldiers killed in action in southern Afghanistan have died at Musa Qala, Sangin or Nowzad.

The soldiers risk sniper fire and full-scale assaults from experienced Taliban fighters who can then blend into the local population after each attack.

The peace deal in Musa Qala was first mooted by representatives of the town’s 2,000-strong population. About 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.

Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of the British taskforce, flew into Musa Qala 18 days ago, guarded only by his military police close-protection team, to attend a shura, or council of town elders, to negotiate a withdrawal.

Butler was taken in a convoy to the shura in the desert southeast of Musa Qala where the carefully formulated proposals were made. The British commander said that he was prepared to back a “cessation of fighting” if they could guarantee that the Taliban would also leave.

The deal — and the avoidance of the word ceasefire — allows both sides to disengage without losing face, an important aspect in the Afghan psyche. Polls suggest that 70% of the population are waiting to see whether Nato or the Taliban emerge as the dominant force before they decide which to back.

Fighting in Afghanistan traditionally takes place in the summer and there are concerns that the Taliban could simply use the “cessation of fighting” to regroup and attack again next year. 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,” one 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.”

There is frustration among many British troops that they have been unable to help on reconstruction projects because they have been involved in intense fighting. An e-mail from one officer published this weekend said: “We are not having an effect on the average Afghan.

“At the moment we are no better than the Taliban in their eyes, as all they can see is us moving into an area, blowing things up and leaving, which is very sad.”

The Ministry of Defence announced this weekend that 10 British soldiers had been seriously injured in fighting in the last few days of August, bringing the total number of troops seriously injured in the country this year to 23.

A total of 29 British servicemen have lost their lives in southern Afghanistan in the past two months, including 14 who died when their Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft crashed on September 2.

A new poll published last week revealed a lack of public confidence over the deployment of troops in Afghanistan. According to the BBC poll, 53% of people opposed the use of British troops in the region.

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