Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: The Battle for Musa Qala, 2007

The story of the coalition battle for Musa Qala in Afghanistan’s Helmand province is one worthy of a TV drama: political meddling, intrigue by tribal interests, desperate periods of combat, celebration of success, and the final discouragement of failure to secure a strategic area from insurgents.

Musa Qala had become a Taliban stronghold in early 2007 and an important centre of opium production. But Helmand province overall had become a hotbed of insurgency by that time and the British brigade there chose to leave Musa Qala alone as it had its hands full keeping control of the main towns along the Helmand River. However a shadowy figure named Mullah Salaam, who lived on the outskirts of Musa Qala, contacted President Karzai, claiming that he was a Taliban leader that was ready to ally himself with the government. He said that he would lead his tribal fighters to capture Musa Qala for Karzai if he received weapons. This led to secretive meetings and negotiations in the following months which excited Karzai to such an extent that he insisted that the British not only assist Mullah Salaam but in fact mount a major operation to drive the Taliban out of the town.

Despite the British misgivings, the political pressure resulted in Operation Snakebite, the battle to retake the town in December 2007. It was a tough battle that involved numerous British units, a brigade of the Afghan National Army, and a battalion of the 508th Paratroop Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division which carried out the main assault on the town. Stephen Grey, a British journalist, does a good job of drawing out this complex story of one of the biggest battles of the Afghan war, having interviewed 250 participants throughout the US, UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, from the highest levels of government to front line soldiers who came close to death or saw their comrades die.

This is one of the important readings for anyone wanting to understand the war in Afghanistan.