Afghan Army faces key test in anti-Taliban offensive

Afghan forces are performing well in retaking a Taliban stronghold, but Afghan defense officials are concerned about insufficient weaponry and training.

An offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan this week is the first test for the new Afghan Army, which Western leaders expect to shoulder more responsibilities even as Al Qaeda regroups.

So far, the Afghan Army is performing well, and today it captured a major Taliban stronghold, according to the Associated Press:

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said that Afghan, British and U.S. forces had "completely captured" Musa Qala, a town in the poppy growing belt of northern Helmand province. He said fighting was continuing around the town.

The Guardian newspaper of Britain reports that forces were preparing for a final assault:

Up to 6,000 British, American and Afghan forces fighting Taliban militants holding the strategically important Afghan town of Musa Qala were yesterday preparing for a final assault in the days to come.
The battle is the first major test of the new NATO-trained Afghan Army.

The Guardian adds that the offensive began last Friday.

British Defense Secretary Des Browne, who was in Kabul Sunday to talk to his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahman Wardak, said in a statement released from London that a key element in the operation was that the Afghan Army was in control, according to Agence France-Presse:

"This is an important operation, but the most important thing about it is that Afghan forces are leading," Browne said in a separate statement released from London.
'They are doing so with the assistance of international forces, including British forces. The Afghan government has long said that it would retake Musa Qala from the scourge of the Taliban when the time is right. The time is now right."

A graph in The Washington Post offers a partial listing of weapons to be sent to Afghanistan – including 10 helicopters and 400 armored Humvees – as well as the projected rise in the number of trained Afghan forces between 2003 and 2008.

But the operation throws a spotlight on an Afghan Army that, although coming into its own, badly needs more assistance, the Post reports.

The Afghan army, now 50,000 strong, expects to reach its target strength of 70,000 soldiers by the middle of next year, Afghan and U.S. officials say. Under the new plan, it would then begin recruiting as many as 12,000 additional soldiers, for a total of 82,000, according to Lt. Gen. Sher Mohammed Karimi, the army's operations chief.
While U.S. officials cite the achievements of the Afghan military, the force has historically suffered from high attrition rates. It has also lacked sufficient military aid and trainers, and has been hobbled by old weaponry, Afghan defense officials say.

The outcome of the Musa Qala battle is of high symbolic and strategic value for the Afghan Army, reports Reuters.

Musa Qala is symbolic for both sides in the conflict in Afghanistan as the only sizeable town controlled by the Taliban.
... After coming under sustained Taliban attacks, British troops pulled out of Musa Qala in October last year in a truce criticised by U.S. commanders that handed control of the town to tribal elders. The Taliban then seized Musa Qala in February.

The offensive comes as American officials worry that Al Qaeda is pushing to regroup in Afghanistan, The New York Times reports:

American military and intelligence officials are detecting early signs that Al Qaeda may be increasing its activities in Afghanistan, perhaps even seeking to return to its former base of operations, a senior Defense Department official said...
The senior Defense Department official … said, "We are seeing early indicators that there may be some stepped-up activity by Al Qaeda." No details were offered.
The official cautioned, "It's pretty hard to pull trends out of a few indications," but added that even tentative evidence of increased Qaeda activity in Afghanistan "is something we are concerned with."
American military and intelligence officials are detecting early signs that Al Qaeda may be increasing its activities in Afghanistan, perhaps even seeking to return to its former base of operations, a senior Defense Department official said Monday.

With Al Qaeda growing in strength, Washington plans to pump more money and equipment into the Afghan Army, according to The Washington Post.

The United States and Afghanistan plan to expand the Afghan army by up to 12,000 soldiers and accelerate shipments of tens of thousands of U.S. M-16 rifles, armored Humvees and other weaponry by the spring to counter a growing threat from Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda fighters, U.S. and Afghan commanders said Tuesday.
The Pentagon is also working to speed the flow of weaponry and armor to the Afghan forces, who suffer most of their casualties -- up to 90 percent, according to Afghan army officials -- in roadside bombings. The weapons include 5,000 U.S. M-16 rifles, due to arrive this month, with another 10,000 each month after that, for a total of 60,000, said Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, head of the training command.

But as Washington scales up, Britain's presence in Afghanistan is expected to scale down, according to an analysis piece in the Guardian:

[A]s British troops are engaged in a battle for the Taliban stronghold in Musa Qala, Gordon Brown is expected to tell MPs that it is time the Afghans did more to bring security to their country. Defence and diplomatic sources say the message for Iraq and Afghanistan will be that British forces can only do so much and it is now up to local security forces, civilian institutions and politicians to take the lead. "Military effort alone does not provide solutions," said one official.
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