Just as the immediate threat of war on Iran appears to be receding, the full horror of the “war on terror” is being unleashed on the town of Musa Qala in Afghanistan – and is in danger of being grossly mis-reported by the British media.
This is, according to British officers quoted in the Sunday Times, one of the biggest British military operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, involving as many as 3,000 British troops – almost half the British forces in the country.
It has been five weeks in preparation, and yet the first we learned of it were BBC reports on Friday evening (Dec 7). The Saturday papers ignored the story. BBC news on Sunday night led on Gordon Brown in Iraq, reducing the assault on Musa Qala to a brief mention of the death of a British soldier.
This stunning delay in reporting such a major operation means that all the reports of what is happening appear to be strictly controlled by NATO.
The Sunday and Monday papers make it clear, nevertheless, that this is the biggest British-led operation staged so far in the Afghanistan war. British, Afghan and American forces were advancing all last week towards Musa Qala amid heavy fighting. Backed by several hundred vehicles and dozens of Apache attack helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolt jets, there were violent gun battles as the troops neared the town. British officers said the whole operation was so big that some aircraft were redeployed from combat in Iraq.
The movement began on Tuesday (Dec 4) at first light when Royal Marine commandos stormed across the Helmand river in amphibious vehicles near the town of Sangin. On Thursday, a big Afghan army column began an advance, backed by British and American special forces. The Taliban (the label universally used for the Afghan resistance) have spent months laying anti-personnel and minefields, preparing bunkers and digging trenches in preparation for the attack.
Estimates of the number of troops involved are vague, but the Observer said 4,500 NATO soldiers and Afghan National Army troops were involved, while the Guardian puts it at 6,000. In November 2004, Pentagon officials said 12,000 troops were involved in re-taking Fallujah – a city of 350,000 – from the Iraqi resistance. Given that Musa Qala has a population of about 20,000, you have some idea of the sheer scale of the NATO assault. House-to-house fighting is anticipated.
Like Fallujah, Musa Qala town has become a symbol of the Taliban’s ability to resist NATO and Afghan forces. After very fierce fighting British troops were forced to withdraw in the summer of 2006, after which Afghan forces moved in early this year. Now NATO wants revenge.
Like Fallujah, thousands of civilians are trapped in the town, as reported by embeds who also witnessed US troops open fire on and kill refugees trying to flee the town. Several children have been reported killed in fighting on Saturday. People are staying behind in Musa Qala because they fear their homes will be looted when the town falls. This, by the way, is what “precision” bombing looks like in Afghanistan. This year has been the deadliest in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001 with more than 6,200 people estimated to have been killed in insurgency-related violence.
British media reports so far have all been framed in terms of Afghan atrocities – right on cue, Afghan president Hamid Karzai accused the Taliban of suspending a 15-year-old boy from a ceiling and lighting a gas stove underneath him, burning him alive. The media are also faithfully reporting British troops’ claim to be fighting for “hearts and minds” (i.e. we’re the nice guys), and to cut heroin production, with no mention that it is the occupation that has abjectly failed to prevent an explosion in poppy cultivation as the only means of subsistence.
The retaking of Fallujah didn’t stop the Iraqi resistance – in fact it fuelled it. Have the British media learned any lessons from Iraq? Their coverage of Musa Qala in the next few days will be a test.