British in secret truce with Taliban
IRNA - Islamic Republic News Agency
Islamabad, Oct 2, IRNA
British troops battling the Taliban are to withdraw from one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan after agreeing on a secret deal with the local people, the Times reported on Sunday.
According to the Daily Times, 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 that 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 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.
The move, opposed by Lieutenant-General David Richards, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, has turned the four remote British bases into what Richards called magnets for the Taliban, the Times reported.
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, the Times said.
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, the Times said.
Butler was taken in a convoy to the shura in the desert southeast of Musa Qala, where 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 percent of the population is 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 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 Taliban who stood out against it as reportedly having been 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 in 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 election 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."
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