Monday, 10 December 2007

Musa Qala taken?

Early reports on the Agency wires are relaying Afghan government claims that Afghan and international forces have retaken Musa Qala. A Taliban spokesman is cited saying that their forces fled to avoid civilian and Taliban casualties.

Afghan defence ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi is saying that Afghan, British and U.S. forces have "completely captured" the town although fighting continues on the outskirts.

A resident of Musa Qala, Haji Mohammad Rauf, tells of Taliban fighters leaving the town in trucks and motorbikes around noon. Two hours later hundreds of Afghan soldiers streamed into town and establish security checkpoints, he said. "I was standing on my roof and saw hundreds of Afghan soldiers drive into town," Rauf said.

A British military spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Eaton, has so far been unable to confirm the reports but says he is unsurprised by them. "This is what happens. We have had a number of operations in the past where once the Taliban realize they are overmatched they tend to leave," Eaton said. "I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case here. Ultimately our aim is to take Musa Qala and if we take Musa Qala without a big fight, that's fantastic."

This is very much of a trend, where the Taliban are fully aware that, when they seek combat on equal terms with coalition forces, they are always defeated. The danger is – as we have seen – is that they revert to asymmetric warfare – the mine, IED and suicide bomb – augmented with hit-and-run ambushes, a type of warfare which is more difficult to counter and for which our forces are less well-equipped.

But, while we can rejoice in the success of this part of the battle – with mercifully few casualties (and those, it seems arising from that lack of mine protected vehicles) - it must be noted that the publicity battle has been a disaster.

With the MoD (as a corporate body) retreating behind a screen of "operational security", it has missed a massive opportunity to showcase the Armed Forces and demonstrate the power and professionalism of our military. Even now, (online) newspaper reports are relying on pictures of Taliban forces (above), in the complete absence of any recent official (or any) photographs of British forces directly involved in the operation.

Can you imagine a situation where, during the Normandy campaign in 1944, that the only photographs released were of Nazi forces parading prior to the battle? Yet, despite half a century of massively improved communications, that is a direct equivalent.

No doubt, in the fullness of time, material will become available, but the moment has been lost - it is old news and the media will have moved on. One hopes that there will be the fullest of inquiries into the reasons for this failure – which need not lie in London, but may have more fundamental causes.