December 12, 2007

Taliban Fail In Fallback

The Taliban lost their grip on the only significant Afghan territory they held, Musa Qala, earlier this week. Most of their forces withdrew rather than fight the combined NATO and Afghan forces that took back the Helmand city. Their effort to shift to a fallback position in Sangin, a neighboring town, has also failed:

Afghan soldiers backed by NATO air power killed more than 50 Taliban fighters during a two-day battle with militants who tried to attack a southern Afghan town near the one they were routed from this week, Afghanistan's Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

Afghan soldiers fought the insurgents in Sangin, a town in Helmand province that neighbors Musa Qala, which Taliban fighters had controlled since February before abandoning it this week in the face of an offensive by Afghan, British and U.S. forces.

"When the terrorists were defeated in Musa Qala, they escaped to Sangin and started firing in and around Sangin," the Defense Ministry said.

Among the 50 militants killed were three foreigners and three commanders, the ministry said. It said no civilians were hurt or killed in the operation.

The Taliban faces a desperate situation in that area. With the Afghan winter pressing down on them, they cannot easily move around in Helmand province. Their lines of communication have been cut, and they have few options for haven. Without gaining shelter, the force ejected from Musa Qala will likely die in the snow, and so their suicidal charge in Sangin highlights their desperation.

Now that the Taliban has lost its best footing in Helmand, its other forces will find themselves in the crosshairs of the NATO coalition. They still have control in three remote towns in Helmand, but without Musa Qala, those outposts will not last long. The Taliban has to face a decision whether to stand and get annihilated, or retreat back across the border into Pakistan before the coalition finds them -- if they can manage the trek at this time of year.

Afghanistan faces another kind of challenge. They need to make sure that people get fed in and around Musa Qala, and that they don't freeze to death. The Karzai government has begun delivering emergency provisions to alleviate a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the Taliban's flight. That effort will be critical to maintaining stability and opposition to the Taliban in the short and long run.


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