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US troops fought 3 days on foot in takeover of Taliban-held town
Afghanistan Heal
A Britain military official, part of the International Security Assistant Force (ISAF) talks with his colleagues, not seen, as the troops get on a Chinook helicopter at a joint base of the ISAF and Afghan forces in Musa Qala district of Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008 . Militants overran Musa Qala last February and held on to thetown until December, when Afghan and NATO troops took it back. A senior Taliban leade in the area, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, denies claims that he has been kicked out of the group for "disobeying orders" and conducting activities "against the Taliban's rules and regulations." - photo by Associated Press

MUSA QALA, Afghanistan - Chinook helicopters dropped Capt. Don Canterna's company of soldiers on the dusty outskirts of Musa Qala as evening fell. Loaded down with weapons, food, and water, his men walked through the night.

Twelve hours later, daybreak found the 82nd Airborne paratroopers facing a line of mud-brick homes — and the first barrage of Taliban bullets fired from hiding places the Americans couldn't see.

"As the sun was coming up was when we first started getting contact," said Canterna, 28, of Lake Geneva, Wis. "A lot of the fighting was at extremely close range."

For the 600 paratroopers who air assaulted into northern Helmand province — the world's largest opium poppy growing region — the Dec. 8 sunrise ambush was the first volley in what battalion commander Lt. Col. Brian Mennes said was almost 72 hours of continuous fighting.

On Dec. 11, after U.S. troops had closed in on Musa Qala's outskirts, Afghan soldiers poured into town, allowing NATO and Afghan officials to say the country's fledgling army had retaken the Taliban-held enclave, a major symbolic victory.

But American troops still stationed in Musa Qala more than a month after the battle said they in fact did the majority of the fighting, and some chafed a bit that U.S., NATO and Afghan officials downplayed their role.

Why the American troops never got much credit for their role in the battle has to do with NATO's strategy to empower the Afghan army. It's in NATO's interest for Afghans to believe their army is strong, dependable and experienced.

Right after the fall of Musa Qala, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on a visit to Kabul, said the most important lesson of the battle was that "we can work together, and progressively Afghan forces are in the lead."

"We didn't get credit for it, but it was a good mission," said Capt. Jesse Smith, a 26-year-old medic from Lorton, Va. "Taking Musa Qala was the Afghans. Securing the perimeter of Musa Qala was the Americans."

The 82nd Airborne paratroopers under Mennes, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Fort Bragg, N.C., have seen almost a full year of constant combat. But Mennes said his men faced their toughest battle at Musa Qala against an insurgent force 350 strong.

"It was the most intense," Mennes said. "I think the (insurgents') resolve here was very high."

Lt. Col. David Accetta, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, acknowledged that U.S. forces had a role in Musa Qala, but he saved his praise for Afghan troops.

"The Afghans were really the lead and whatever they accomplished was much more significant from my perspective. You expect our guys to be good and get it done but you don't necessarily think that immediately of the (Afghan forces). But they did step up to the plate and did a great job," he said.

That lack of recognition appeared to irk some of the U.S. soldiers who were gathered in Musa Qala's district center over pre-packaged military meals last week. But Canterna said seeing the bigger picture was more important.

"Recognition is always nice but completing the mission is paramount," he said.

When asked if his men were bothered by a lack of recognition, Mennes said "yeah," but he did not dwell on it.

"I think we know what we did. Our partners here appreciate what we did. The (Afghan) governors that we work for and with appreciate it. I think that's the important thing," he said.

As the Americans approached Musa Qala from the north, British troops were stationed south of town to intercept fleeing militants. The British commander, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, said the cooperation was a model for international missions. "A lot of what we did couldn't have been done without" the U.S. troops, he said.

One American was killed on Dec. 9 by an improvised explosive device. Twelve men were wounded, from shrapnel and gunfire. The U.S. forces were supported by fighter aircraft during the battle.

Mennes said he knows of three civilians killed in the fight, a relatively low number. He said his men understand counterinsurgency battles well, and that he's proud his troops are seen by Afghans as a force for good.

"They understand that you can't come in here and blow up all the buildings and kill everyone in front of you, which doesn't allow you to be where we are today. It doesn't allow you to gain the trust of the people we are here to help," Mennes said during an interview at Musa Qala's government center, a heavily fortified but dilapidated building.

"They understand that the kinetic operations (the battles) are just a price for entry to get in here to do what's important, which is earn the consent of the people toward the government," Mennes said.

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