Afghan, NATO forces retake key Taliban town

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan and NATO forces seized the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala on Tuesday, a symbolic victory for the Afghan government and its Western backers, but one which may do little to stop the insurgents from carrying out attacks.

While foreign troops have defeated the Taliban in every direct clash, they have failed to bring stability because of a lack of forces — particularly Afghan police — to hold ground and foster good governance and the rule of law, analysts say.

Musa Qala, in the southern province of Helmand, was the only big town held by the Taliban and took on symbolic importance after the insurgents seized it in February. Its capture by the Taliban had followed the breakdown of a truce which allowed besieged British troops to pull out in October last year.

“Musa Qala is freed. Our troops are now inside the town and the bazaar. The Taliban fled in four directions,” Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi told a news conference in Kabul.

The Taliban had turned Musa Qala into their bastion in southern Afghanistan, setting up a civilian administration and Islamic courts. They had even achieved a measure of security lacking in government-held areas, which are under constant threat of insurgent suicide attacks.

Musa Qala also became the major centre for processing heroin in a province that produces nearly half the world’s crop of its raw material, opium.

The town thus became a direct challenge to the Afghan government and the international community which seek to win over Afghans by providing security and development.

Thousands of British and U.S. forces began the offensive last Friday, opening the way for Afghan troops to capture the town centre, a milestone operation for the fledgling Afghan National Army and one of the biggest it has so far conducted.

HEAVY CASUALTIES

“We have inflicted heavy casualties during the operation. Tens of (Taliban) bodies are still in the battlefield,” Azimi said, but added three Helmand districts were still under Taliban control.

The insurgents fled into neighboring areas and mountains, he said, but “a number of them are probably hiding inside Musa Qala and we are continuing the operation to clear the town.”

But the Taliban struck back near the town of Sangin, further south in Helmand, demonstrating the advantage of their small guerrilla force.

NATO commanders have complained the 43,000 troops they have in Afghanistan are not enough for so large a country and most European governments bar their forces from conducting offensive operations and limit how and where they are deployed.

Insufficient troop levels mean the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is left “chasing the pieces round the chess board”, in the words of one analyst.

Taliban suicide attacks, meanwhile, have added to the sense of insecurity and increased frustration with President Hamid Karzai’s pro-Western government.

A suicide car bomber targeting a NATO convoy near the main southern city of Kandahar on Tuesday wounded two civilians, provincial police chief Sayed Aqa Saqib said. There was no damage to the NATO convoy.

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