The fall of Musa Qala, a small town in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, may herald the start of an offensive by the Taliban in order to preempt NATO reinforcements that are arriving in southern portions of the country. The Taliban attack came amid a regular rotation of commanders of the NATO force, with British Gen. David Richards, an expert at negotiations, giving way to an American, Gen. Dan McNeill.
Several hundred Taliban insurgents overran Musa Qala on February 2. The attack laid waste to an agreement there, brokered last fall by Richards and local tribal elders, under which NATO troops agreed to withdraw from the town in return for a commitment by local Afghan leaders to oppose the Taliban. On February 4, a NATO air strike killed the Taliban commander, identified as Mullah Abdul Ghaffar, who was supposedly in charge of the Musa Qala operation.
The retaliatory air strike came shortly before Richards relinquished command of the 33,000-strong NATO force, including 14,000 Americans. A separate American force, numbering roughly 8,000, operates in Afghanistan independently of NATO command.
Officials in several European countries have quietly expressed concern about placing an American general in charge of the NATO force. Richards tried to create a less harsh, more economic-development-oriented identity for NATO in Afghanistan, as compared to the
Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and the author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."