Exclusive: Eyewitness Account of Huge Taliban Defeat

By By Stephen Grey

Dec 13, 2007 10:39am

Afghanistan’s government flag was raised Wednesday on what had been one of the biggest strongholds of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and a leading world center of heroin production. The town of about 45,000 people was secured at about 9:30 a.m. as Afghan troops, steered by British soldiers and U.S. Green Berets, drove out remnants of the Taliban resistance from Musa Qala in the opium poppy region of northern Helmand. As the only journalist to join NATO forces entering the town, I found it a ghost town abandoned by both the Taliban and its residents at the end of an eight-day coalition operation. The offensive was one of NATO’s biggest in the country since Operation Anaconda in 2002. Embedded with a team of British troops and a detachment/"A-team" of U.S. special forces, I watched the Taliban being pounded these last few days with overwhelming force — vapor trails circled in the clear blue sky over the Helmand desert as B1 and B52 bombers backed by A10 tank busters, F16s, Apache helicopters and Specter gunships were used to kill hundreds of Taliban fighters. The operation was launched last Tuesday with an attack across the Helmand River by British Royal Marine commandos, a thrust from the west by light armor of the U.K. Household Cavalry Regiment; all this, however, was a feint for the main airborne landing from the north of a battalion of soldiers of Task Force Fury from the 82nd Airborne. Faced with a full brigade of NATO forces, a brigade of Afghan government fighters and the defection of a key Taliban commander, the Taliban chose not to flee at first but to fight a desperate battle. I joined one feint attack of Afghan soldiers last Friday that came under fierce Taliban fire in a village on the outskirts of Musa Qala — AK47s and heavy machine gun fire opened up on us as we advanced across open ground. The British and Afghans counterattacked backed by U.S. special forces who opened up with 50-caliber fire and by calling three F16 strikes and a B1 bomber strike. On Sunday, as the 82nd Airborne advanced to take positions north, east and south of the town,  I watched the sky being lit with large explosions from heavy ordnance dropped from the air to support the U.S. advance. U.S. forces believe the Taliban were backed by a large strength of foreign fighters, including those linked to al Qaeda. Soldiers who I accompanied found one dead fighter whose notebook revealed he was from Pakistan. While hundreds of Taliban are believed to have been killed, two British soldiers and one American soldier lost their lives. All the deaths, however, resulted from vehicles striking mines left not, it is believed, by the Taliban but by Soviet forces in the 1980s. On Monday, after days of fierce fighting — more ferocious than NATO commanders had expected — the Taliban called it quits and fled the town. Afghan troops entered the town on Tuesday and completed their occupation on Wednesday after only token further resistance. NATO forces now hope to launch a program of reconstruction that will persuade the local population to turn their backs on the Taliban. In a controversial move, Musa Qala had been abandoned the previous year after British troops lost seven lives defending a base in the town from waves of Taliban attacks. Although handed over, in theory, to the elders of the town last October, it was taken over by the Taliban by February and became one of the few major places in Afghanistan where the Taliban could operate in the open, trying to set up their own local government and courts. Last year’s British-backed deal was criticized openly by U.S. commanders and the recapture of the town heals an open wound that undermined claims by NATO that the Taliban were being defeated militarily. *Stephen Grey is the author of "Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA’s Rendition and Torture Program" (St Martin’s Press). He is an award-winning investigative reporter who has contributed to the New York Times, BBC, PBS and ABC News among others. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage.

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