"The operation to retake Musa Qala has commenced," British ISAF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton told the press two days ago.
Even as we write this, the definitive battle of 2007 is underway. Coalition forces, including British, Danish and Estonian troops, were taken by helicopter to the edge of the town prior to the final assault.
Friday, one NATO soldier was killed by a mine, Afghan and coalition forces killed 12 Taliban, and two children being used as human shields died when the car they were in was caught in a firefight.
Just as the Canadian-led Operation Medusa crushed Taliban hopes in 2006, chasing the Taliban out of Musa Qala would extinguish any claim of success the insurgents could make for 2007.
Taliban forces swept into the town of Musa Qala at the beginning of February, sweeping aside the local tribal council and seizing control. They immediately imposed a reign of terror, executing anyone they suspected of spying.
"We do not punish people for their hair and beards right now," the Taleban district governor told an Afghan reporter last month . "But once we take over the country, we will treat people according to the orders of our supreme leader Mullah Omar."
This week Afghanistan's central government finally gave its okay: take back the town.
For the past month Afghan and coalition forces have been inching toward Musa Qala, waiting for the final go-ahead. Throughout the year three Taliban commanders associated with the takeover were killed by airstrikes and separate gun battles over the summer killed more than 300 Taliban fighters. Then in September the softening up process began in earnest through wide-scale assaults, ambushes, and airstrikes on Taliban trench lines and other defensive positions.
A probe by 50 British vehicles came within two miles of the town at the end of November and succeeded in its objective of keeping the Taliban in Musa Qala confused and on edge.
Coalition forces held back while discussions were held with Mullah Abdul Salaam, a tribal leader commanding a large Taliban force inside Musa Qala, who had indicated a desire to surrender to the government without a fight. There's been no word on the Mullah Salaam lately, indicating negotiations failed.
NATO officials say the looming battle may be the fiercest combat since Operation Anaconda in 2002.
On Thursday NATO planes dropped leaflets over Musa Qala. Some residents said the pamphlets warned of an imminent assault. Others that they urged tribal leaders to eject the Islamic hardliners themselves.
Royal Marines of 40 Commando, the 1st Battalion the Scots Guards, Household Cavalry light tanks, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Artillery and the Green Howards have apparently encircled the town in preparation for the final assault.
Western military sources told The Daily Telegraph that Afghan forces will lead the assault - the first time that the national army has undertaken an operation on such a scale. Contacted by satellite telephone, Taliban commanders told reporters they had mined routes to the town, which is about the size of Cambridge.
"I have 300 Mujahideen with me," said Mullah Ahmad Muslim. "We have brought our best artillery. We have ZSU anti-aircraft guns in place to attack the helicopters."
But he wasn't ruling out retreat completely.
"The Mujahideen are ready to fight. It is hard to say whether we will make a tactical withdrawal. We will see." One town resident said that Mullah Tor Jan, the overall Taliban commander in the town, had told local leaders that they would "save the town from destruction" by withdrawing once a "screen" of his fighters to the south of the town was breached by British forces.
Last week Taliban commander Enqiadi told local reporters he was already making plans to seize all of Helmand province from his base in Musa Qala.
He told Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri: "We have achieved more this year compared to last year. We are so strong now, we are able to fight the Americans in Helmand â€¦ and on the front-line. We are better equipped and our enemies have tried to occupy our territory, but they can't."
"Last year we used guerrilla attacks," he said. "This year we will organize frontal assaults. Our lines are so strong that the foreigners will never break them. The foreigners say they are going to launch a major operation in Musa Qala. We are ready for that. In Musa Qala alone, we have 2,500 fully armed fighters. It will be very easy for us to resist the attack. We want to take the whole province this winter."
He may have had second thoughts Monday when a coalition airstrike near Musa Qala killed Mullah Sainy, the Taliban commander who kidnapped an Italian journalist last March. Sainy and four other Taliban were in a vehicle near the village of Nowzad when it was hit by a Hellfire missile fired from a U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned drone.
The skies over Helmand province, and especially Musa Qala (or Musa Qal'eh, as the Air Force calls it) are crowded with aircraft. The daily air summaries from the last few days alone are exciting reading:
*An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle dropped guided bomb unit-12s against a vehicle transporting enemy combatants near Musa Qal'eh.
*An Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II flew over Musa Qal-eh to deter enemy activities. The mission supported a coalition convoy moving through the area.
*Shows of force with flares were performed by F-15Es to deter enemy activities in Musa Qal'eh.
* In Nowzad, coalition troop engagements against enemy combatants were supported by Air Force aircraft. A B1-B Lancer, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-15Es dropped GBU-38s. A 500-pound bomb, cannon rounds and a GBU-12 were delivered by the A-10s.
*Additionally, an MQ-1B Predator fired a Hellfire missile while another GBU-12 was fired from an MQ-9A Reaper. These munitions were used against enemy combatants who were taking positions in buildings and rocket-propelled grenade sites.
*F-15Es successfully conducted shows of force with flares to deter enemy activities in areas around Musa Qal'eh, Kajaki Dam and Sangin. Additionally, GBU-38s were used against an enemy compound in Sangin.
*Multiple F-15E aircrafts supported coalition force engagements against enemy combatants in Sangin and Nowzad. The F-15Es dropped GBU-38s, GBU-12s, and cannon rounds against enemy compounds and fighting positions.
* a Royal Air Force Harrier GR-9 targeted an enemy position with an enhanced Paveway II munitions in Musa Qal'eh. Coalition forces were engaging enemy combatants in hostile action.
*A French Mirage 2000 and a Mirage F1-CR conducted shows of force to deter enemy activities in Musa Qal'eh.
*A RAF GR-9 showed continued presence over Coalition positions during a show of force demonstration in Musa Qal'eh. The JTAC declared the mission as a success.
(FYI we wondered what a GR-9 was, so we looked it up:
The Harrier GR9 is a heavily updated development of the existing GR7, incorporating the ability to use a wide range of advanced precision weaponry, new communications, and systems and airframe upgrades. Integration and clearance of these weapons will allow the RAF to hit a wider range of targets harder, at longer range and with less risk to aircrew.)
Even as the Taliban's stronghold in southern Afghanistan crumbles, their Pakistan safe haven is collapsing.
Until this year the Islamic fundamentalists had a peace agreement with the Pakistani government which allowed them almost unlimited freedom in the tribal regions so long as they stayed away from the urban centres. The Taliban leaders could hide out there, run unmolested training camps, and rebuild their forces over the winter when fighting in Afghanistan dies down.
But this year the pro-Al Qaeda tribes have been feuding with the Afghanistan-first tribes resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Taliban fighters. And when the fundamentalists tried to expand their control into Pakistan's so-called settled areas, the central government fought back. This week alone over 130 militants have been killed in Pakistan's Swat Valley where a radical cleric tried to set up a state-within-a-state.
Among the dead are many Taliban commanders who will not be returning to Afghanistan to fight coalition troops. The Islamic militants are on the run, but if they try to flee into Afghanistan, they will find coalition forces waiting for them.
The struggle in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is more of the same.
On Friday, three Taliban fighters blew themselves up when a roadside bomb they were planting exploded prematurely south of Kandahar city on a road frequently used by Nato and police forces.
Another IED in the Kandahar area hit a civilian bus, killing four civilians including two women. Their five children were among the injured.
Last week three Canadian soldiers were seriously injured when a roadside bomb destroyed their light armoured vehicle on a stretch of road west of Kandahar.
News accounts said the road "about 40 km west of Kandahar city, near Sperwan Ghar is a favourite spot of the Taliban and has been nicknamed IED alley because of the high number of explosives found there."
The Canadian military this week released video taken by unmanned drones of Taliban troops trying to hide from NATO forces, often by disguising themselves as women. The clarity was excellent.
So what. That's all the Canadian military can do, is watch.
Canada uses bargain basement UAV'S called Sperwers to spy on Taliban forces, drones which have no offensive missiles to kill what they see. In fact, according to troops on the ground, the Sperwers make so much noise Taliban troops know when they're being watched and just have to wait for the UAV's to leave before planting roadside bombs.
Someday someone will have to answer for this unacceptable situation where Canadian forces in battle use inadequate, outdated equipment that cannot be used to stop the enemy's main killing weapon-the roadside bomb.
The extemely clear pictures should however put to rest the media's kneejerk disbelief of the U.S. Air Force whenever Taliban spokesmen accuse them of killing civilians in air strikes. Last week they accused the U.S. of killing 14 contruction workers in Nuristan province. The U.S. insisted they attacked a group of Taliban fighters. Now that we can see for ourselves the clarity of video taken from the air there's no reason to disbelieve pilots who know what they're bombing.
Taliban insurgents continued to depend on terror tactics, which take a huge toll of innocent civilians caught in the line of fire.
- A suicide bomber smashed his car into a bus carrying Afghan Army personnel in the capital early Wednesday morning. 13 people were killed-seven army officers in the bus and six civilians on the street, including four children.
- Another bombing in Kabul, on Tuesday morning, saw a suicide car bomber crash into a two-car NATO convoy on the Kabul airport road. 22 Afghan civilians in a nearby bus and on the street were wounded.
- On Nov. 27 two civilians were killed by a suicide bomber who attacked a U.S. security convoy of three land cruisers. The Canadian embassy in Kabul was damaged in the blast.
- And three days earlier a suicide bomber killed nine civilians, six of them children, at the opening of new bridge on the outskirts of the capital. One Italian soldier was also killed in the blast.
A dozen bomb attacks in and around the capital since June have killed 90 people.
In Afghanistan's eastern Logar province, U.S. troops narrowly averted a great tragedy when they discovered two bombs at the Poorak Girls School where 400 students are enrolled.
One was a hand grenade rigged to explode at the school's entrance. The other was
a bomb placed under a footbridge in front of the school. It was made of two Chinese-made 82 mm mortars, a two-foot-long recoilless rifle round and a pound of explosives material placed in a bag - all of it wired up to batteries.
Home-grown Taliban have shown a reluctance to use terror tactics that harm their own people, but Al Qaeda fighters from other countries relish the death and destruction they cause.
An ISAF spokesman, Portuguese Brigadier General Carlos Branco said the militants were "unable to take their insurgency to the next level" and so had resorted to "terrorism", the use of propaganda and outright lying about the results of their actions out of desperation.