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NATO Troops in Afghanistan Combat Revived Taliban

November 16, 2006 at 2:50 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, the intensifying war in Afghanistan, five years after the American-led coalition ousted the Taliban. Recently, NATO allies took over a peacekeeping operation there, but it has turned into full-scale combat against a revived Taliban, especially for British, Canadian and Dutch troops. Some of the heaviest combat has been in Helmand Province in the south.

From the town of Musa Qala, we have a report from Kylie Morris of Independent Television News.

KYLIE MORRIS, ITV News Correspondent: Britain on the attack in Afghanistan. These are the soldiers who the British government sent hoping they’d not have to fire a single shot. In fact, here in Helmand, they fire thousands of rounds daily.

Over the summer, this became a conflict where British forces spent ammunition at a faster rate than at any time since the Second World War. Moments like these in Nousa, a town in the north, show just how torrid the fighting has been.

For three months, the Royal fusiliers were left in a so-called platoon house to prevent the Taliban taking over the town’s center. They registered 149 contacts in 107 days, meaning they came under fire and returned fire at an extraordinary rate.

MAJ. JONATHAN SWIFT, Royal Fusiliers: The way we were employing ourselves, that had the effect that we were trying to achieve on the enemy, and that is to disrupt their operations and not allow them to try and take hold of the district compounds.

And these district compounds are a focus for the development, the future development of these towns. And it’s important that the coalition help those district compounds for the future, and that’s exactly what we did.

Mosque destruction, civilian deaths

KYLIE MORRIS: Although the military no longer favors body counts, the men say they killed as many as 200 Taliban. The platoon house policy was costly, though, for both sides: 15 British soldiers died in Helmand.

Throughout the province, Britain's best troops became tied up in positions they couldn't leave. They drew fire from determined Taliban forces who could roam freely. Their supply and relief put others at risk.

These are the first television pictures of the destruction of Musa Qala. The British came here to win hearts and minds, to assist reconstruction, but this is the legacy of their battle with the Taliban.

This was the town's main mosque, paid for by the townspeople who, over the years, came together to fund its construction. This was its high street. Not only small-arms fire or even heavy guns and mortars were used here. This bears the hallmarks of multiple air strikes called in to deal with the Taliban threat.

The fighting was so heavy around the platoon house that air strikes, normally meant as an emergency response, became habitual. Human rights groups say that, in Afghanistan, the munitions load dropped from the air is eight times that unloaded over Iraq in the past year.

The locals who accompany our cameraman say that 10 or 11 people died in that house. As they walk, they point out the ashes of the pyre where the British burned everything.

This man says the soldiers took the window frames from the hospital and burnt them so they could make tea. It's the destruction of the mosque, though, that has upset people most.

NASIMA NIAZI, Member of Parliament (through translator): It's wrong to destroy a mosque. In your religion, you have churches. You respect them. It's the same for us. We have mosques, and we respect them. The foreign soldiers promised that, whatever happens, they won't destroy a mosque. That's why people are upset.

AFGHAN CITIZEN (through translator): When they came here, I didn't mind. But they destroyed our shops, our houses, our main mosque here in the city. It's terrible. They bombarded us. Now I don't have the money to rebuild my shop.

JOURNALIST (through translator): How many innocent people were killed here?

AFGHAN CITIZEN (through translator): There were a lot of civilians killed here; I don't know exactly how many.

KYLIE MORRIS: Critically, this man says one of the effects of the fighting is that people have had no choice but to gain an income from growing opium.

AFGHAN CITIZEN (through translator): Over the last five months, the bazaar was closed, everything was closed. There was no other business going on. Whatever was in the shops was either burned out or it was looted. So now the people are in the position of begging. So what are they meant to do? If they don't grow opium, what are they meant to do?

Colonel defends British forces

KYLIE MORRIS: At headquarters in Lashkar Gar, chief of staff Ian Huntley defends the policies of the British forces.

COL. IAN HUNTLEY, Royal Marines: If the Taliban choose to engage us from mosques and elsewhere, even then we consider very, very carefully whether those institutions should be targeted. And we've already given around $10,000 to the elders in Musa Qala so they can get their administrations set up. And we're eager to push forward reconstruction in Musa Qala as soon as possible.

KYLIE MORRIS: A British military spokesman today us Musa Qala was now back on its feet. And while that may be the plan, it hasn't happened yet. Our cameraman is told by several people that 200 civilians died here, with no way of knowing whether that's true.

HAJI HEYAT KHAN, Afghan Citizen (through translator): The British forces came and destroyed the whole area. There are still bodies under the rubble. It's difficult to know whether they were men or women.

KYLIE MORRIS: In Musa Qala, now the British have left their platoon house, there's a kind of peace. On the advice of the governor of Helmand, they signed a deal handing over power to men they regard as tribal elders. Then they left.

Within the military, it's seen as a model to roll out across the province. But up in Kabul, they're not so sure. These men are from Helmand. They met outside Parliament House where they'd come to petition the president. They say Musa Qala is now held by the Taliban. The British have done a deal with the fathers of the Talibs.

Making deals with the Taliban

AFGHAN CITIZEN (through translator): Much of the province is under the control of the Taliban. The government only holds a narrow strip along the road. The British handed Helmand to the Taliban. They came to an agreement and handed Musa Qala to them.

KYLIE MORRIS: Their opinion is shared by Helmand MP Nasima Niazi.

NASIMA NIAZI (through translator): When the troops backed out and surrendered power, everyone believes that they lost to the Taliban, that strategically they were defeated. They shouldn't have left the place to the tribal elders. Even I think the Taliban defeated them.

KYLIE MORRIS: But Colonel Huntley says they've acted on behalf of the provincial governor and that the deal is sound.

COL. IAN HUNTLEY: I think, from our perspective, it's very straightforward. We have to respect the judgment of the governor. He has been put in place by the president to govern Helmand and, frankly, he will have a far better idea of how reliable the elders are. And if in his judgment they are people with whom he can come to an agreement and if in his judgment they can deliver that, then we must not question it. It's not within our competence to question that.

The next step in reconstruction

KYLIE MORRIS: Britain must walk a careful line. It can't afford to become embroiled in tribal politics, but repeatedly emphasizes the need for Afghan solutions to Afghan problems. As for reconstruction, well, low expectations are key.

This is the force that needed to be mobilized to build four police posts in the town of Geresk. Two Afghan soldiers were shot in the process. They came under direct fire as they built the post the police they're still training are expected to occupy to stop the Taliban. It's a big ask: How long will this take?

COL. IAN HUNTLEY: In one respect, one thinks we're going to be here for a long time. There's an awful lot of work to be done, both in development in terms of security sector reform, et cetera. And then all of a sudden a shock comes along like the Musa Qala agreement, and you seem to leap forward a huge amount in no time at all.

But it will clearly be a number of years, but I have to say -- you have to ask the politicians how long it will take to finally resolve this thing.

KYLIE MORRIS: Their greatest challenge is to fight the Taliban without causing such damage they lose the support of the local people. They need gentle successes, and they need to make a difference. Platoon houses were a costly beginning. The question is how they find their way now.