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Afghanistan: Joint Push Aimed At Recapturing Southern Town

By Ron Synovitz

NATO-led forces and Afghan government troops in southern Afghanistan have launched a joint offensive aimed at seizing a town that has been controlled by Taliban militants for the past 10 months.

Those militants have managed to delay reconstruction work at the nearby Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Helmand Province, which features prominently in international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan and could provide much-needed electricity to millions of people and irrigate huge swaths of farmland.

A government source said local elders have pressed officials in Kabul to dislodge the Taliban as they blocked residents' access to services like health care and schooling.

The Taliban's stronghold in the area has been Musa Qala -- a small town about 25 kilometers from the dam that was stormed in early February by Taliban fighters who disarmed local police and seized the district administrative center from a local tribal council.

From Musa Qala, Taliban fighters have been able to take positions on nearby hills to launch mortar and rocket attacks at the Kajaki Dam. They also have been able to attack construction workers who have been trying to build a road from the town of Gereshk to Kajaki so that a massive new electric power turbine can be transported to the dam site.

Closing In On Musa Qala

British Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, confirmed on December 7 that a military operation to retake Musa Qala had begun. He would not comment on the progress or details of the battle. But some reports said NATO and Afghan government troops in the past week had come within several kilometers of Musa Qala and were preparing to storm positions where hundreds of Taliban fighters were thought to be fortified for battle.

NATO and Afghan troops have launched several offensives in Helmand Province during the past year in a bid to push the Taliban back from the Kajaki Dam so that reconstruction can move forward. They say the latest operation began in early November. But the objective of taking control of Musa Qala was not declared until December 4 by Helmand Province Governor Assadullah Wafa, who said that "offensive operations" had begun or were being prepared "with the help and consultation of our friends." Wafa stated bluntly that "the town of Musa Qala itself will be freed from Al-Qaeda and the enemies of Afghanistan and from the enemies of Islam."

Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for Afghanistan's National Security Council, said in Kabul on December 7 that tribal elders from Musa Qala had been asking the Afghan government to force the Taliban out of the area.

"Afghan intelligence reported to us that in Musa Qala there is tension between local elders and the Taliban," Mashal said. "Tribal elders especially want the district to be freed from Taliban control -- particularly from foreign Taliban fighters. They want their children to be able to go to school and health clinics to reopen so that they, like other Afghans, can benefit from public services."

Mashal said elders from one Pashtun tribe in the area were particularly angry about the presence of foreign fighters.

"According to our reports, tensions have been increasing between Taliban and the local [Pashtun] clan of Alizi," Mashal said. "Those tensions are now on the verge of clashes. So Afghan security forces stationed in Helmand and neighboring provinces have been ordered to prevent such clashes from breaking out and to help the people of Musa Qala and the surrounding area."

He said roughly 1,500 Afghan troops had "advanced" to the Musa Qala district.

Taliban 'Spoilers'

The takeover of Musa Qala by the Taliban in early February followed a controversial deal made in late 2006 between NATO and local tribal elders. Under that deal, at the request of tribal elders, British forces withdrew from the district's administrative center. In return, the tribal elders promised to keep militants out of the area and to maintain peace.

Tensions between the militants and local elders appear to have been rising since late March, when the Taliban publicly hanged three men in the center of Musa Qala and at the town's entrances -- accusing them of spying for British forces.

Speaking in March, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer highlighted the strategic and psychological importance of the nearby Kajaki Dam -- describing it as one of the most significant of some 14,000 reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

"When the turbine in that dam is [installed] it will give power to 2 million people and their businesses" from Helmand Province to Kandahar, de Hoop Scheffer said. "It will provide irrigation for hundreds of farmers. And it will create jobs for 2,000 people. The Taliban, the spoilers, are attacking this project every day to [try to] stop it from going forward."

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Saleh Mohammad Saleh in Helmand Province and Asmatullah Sarwan in Prague contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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