Thank God we went to Iraq to get those WMD's. Who cares about the guys that actually attacked us!
KABUL, Afghanistan - Hundreds of villagers fled a southern Afghan town on Saturday overrun by Taliban militants, fearful of a NATO attack on the insurgent fighters who have hoisted their signature white flag over the town’s ransacked government center, residents said.
Gen. David Richards, NATO’s outgoing commander, said “very surgical and deliberate” force would be used to evict the fighters from the town of Musa Qala, where he said the alliance’s strategy of avoiding military action has driven a wedge between residents and Taliban insurgents.
Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said Saturday no NATO forces were in Musa Qala, which they left in October after a peace agreement was signed between the government and village elders. But he added that it was “only a matter of time” before the Afghan government re-established control.
The Taliban themselves appear to expect an attack: Collins noted that NATO reports say Taliban militants have reinforced defensive positions.
Abdul Baqi, a villager who fled Musa Qala with five family members on Saturday, said residents feared fighting was imminent after Taliban fighters swarmed the town Wednesday and Thursday, temporarily taking village elders hostage.
“I’m going to stay with my relatives and will return only if the situation gets better,” Baqi said while sitting in his pickup truck in the nearby district of Gereshk.
‘Acting against the wishes of the people’
Mohammad Wali, another resident, said Taliban fighters had hoisted their white flag — a symbol of Islamic faith, not surrender — over the damaged government compound. Lal Mohammad, who also lives in the town, said hundreds of residents had fled.
Musa Qala saw intense battles between Taliban fighters and British troops last summer and fall. The fighting caused widespread damage to the town of around 10,000 inhabitants, most of whom were forced to leave.
British forces withdrew Musa Qala in October after elders struck a truce with the government of Helmand province that turned over security to local leaders and prevented NATO forces from entering the town.
However, a purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the Taliban seized the town in response to NATO attacks that he said violated the agreement. He was apparently referring to a NATO airstrike outside Musa Qala that killed a senior militant leader and a number of his deputies late last month.
NATO said the Taliban were never party to the agreement and “by their actions, the Taliban have ended over four months of peace in Musa Qala which, until now, had seen a return to normality with reconstruction and development getting under way.”
“It is very clear that the Taliban are acting against the wishes of the people of Musa Qala,” NATO said in a statement.
Some Western officials have criticized the truce as a NATO retreat in hostile Taliban territory.
‘This is a winnable war’
Richards defended the peace agreement on Saturday, saying it had driven a wedge between Taliban fighters and residents. He said the violence proved the Taliban had never been party to the deal and that the agreement angered them.
“These mechanisms to drive a wedge are an absolute classic part of any counterinsurgency,” he told The Associated Press.
“Far from being a failure, it shows what a success this can be and how upsetting it can be to the Taliban,” he said. “The tribal elders are not back in bed with the Taliban. They are on our side and I have every reason to think they’ll remain on the side of the government, and they want us back in.”
Richards leaves his post as NATO commander in Afghanistan on Sunday, to be replaced by U.S. Gen. Dan McNeil, who will oversee more than 40,000 NATO-led troops and will immediately inherit the Musa Qala crisis.
Richards’s tenure spanned the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Some 4,000 people died in insurgency-related violence in 2006, according to an Associated Press count, which was based on numbers from U.S., NATO and Afghan officials.
The British general said it had been a “huge privilege” to command U.S. troops, saying that if he wanted a “tricky military problem solved, there’s no better nation to which I would turn first.”
He said he appreciated Congress’ bipartisan support in Afghanistan.
“This is a good war, this is a winnable war,” Richards said.