In Afghanistan, a Do-Over Battle

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Steve Lewis / Reuters

British soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan

The spectacle of fierce fighting around a dusty Afghan town, with well-armed Western troops, backed by helicopters and Afghan allies, bearing down on hundreds of dug-in Taliban fighters, would seem to date from late 2001. The fact that it's unfolding this weekend at Musa Qala in southeastern Afghanistan — a full six years after the Taliban was first routed by coalition forces — is a reminder of how difficult the war is proving for the the U.S. and its allies.

The town, where some 2,000 Taliban fighters are believed to be holed up, was surrounded on Friday by British and Afghan forces, in preparation for an airborne assault by U.S. troops expected overnight in a drive to recapture the town. Musa Qala was captured by the Taliban in February of this year, without a shot being fired — they simply rolled into town and planted their flag after British forces withdrew, having brokered an agreement with local tribal elders to keep the peace. And the radical movement fighting to expel foreign forces from Afghanistan and reimpose its harsh brand of Islamic rule has held the town ever since.

The battle to own Musa Qala is expected to be intense, because of its value to both sides. For the Taliban, there's major symbolic value in being able to hold a town in a country ostensibly under the control of more than 40,000 NATO troops and their Afghan allies. Musa Qala is also at the center of the opium industry, whose revenues fuel the Taliban insurgency, and its location near the mountains north of Helmand make it a useful command center for an insurgent army. For all the same reasons, it's important to NATO to dislodge the Taliban. That, and the fact that it's a do-over, correcting what many officials see as a mistake by the British forces that allowed the Taliban to take control in the first place.

The problem for NATO, however, is that Musa Qala may be a very visible Taliban position, but it's only one of hundreds — by some estimates, today there is a permanent Taliban presence in more than half of Afghanistan, and NATO, struggling to expand its troop strength from reluctant European nations, is not well placed to roll it back. The breadth of the territory across which the Taliban now operates across southern Afghanistan all the way up to the capital reflects the extent to which the uncommitted civilian population is hedging its bets. With the harsh winter coming, Musa Qala may be one of the last major engagements of the current fighting season. But next spring's thaw is expected to bring the war in Afghanistan quickly back to the boil.