The Art of Influence

How the Taliban were driven from a strategic Afghan town
By retired Major General Andrew Mackay

Soldiers use the term kinetic force to describe the firing of bullets, bombs and artillery.

Non-soldiers often think of the business of war as entirely about the kinetic. But it's not just about this hard power.

The role of Influence is often more important than anything.

The key strategic town of Musa Qala in Afghanistan's Helmand province is again being fought over.

In the past month it has been briefly occupied by the Taliban before being retaken by Afghan security forces aided by US air strikes.

In December 2007 I led the coalition forces in the major operation that captured it from the Taliban.

How we got there

Everyone knows where they were when they first heard the news of hijacked airliners being flown into the Twin Towers in New York. I was in Pristina working in the UN mission in Kosovo. CNN was a constant presence on our screens.

The people around me talked about how such a thing could happen. Most assumed they had just witnessed a horrendous accident. But calm discussion changed to horror just a few minutes later when, in front of our eyes, the second tower was hit.

I could not have known that this event would find me, just over six years later, sitting in a trench beneath a mobile communications tower on top of Roshan Hill outside the town of Musa Qala in Afghanistan's most troubled province, Helmand.

Musa Qala is the most northern of Helmand's towns and has been strategically important for centuries because of its proximity to trade routes.

In recent years, much of this trade has been in opium and heroin. Musa Qala has always been a good spot to watch over the trade in drugs, and Roshan Hill is the best place to watch over Musa Qala.

I put my brigade command post there.

We were in a major battle to recapture the town from a Taliban force that was only there because presidents, politicians and generals had allowed it to be.

In Afghanistan, Musa Qala had become a byword for a political and military propensity to muddle through.

What was to be done about it?

I was on that hill to make a very important decision - when to commit the Afghan Army to the recapture of Musa Qala.

At that point my fellow Afghan commander, Muhaiyodin Ghori, was "leaguered" - an old military term for encamped - several kilometres away with his brigade of about 2,000 Afghan soldiers.

Alongside him were British mentors from the 2nd Yorkshire Regiment, who would accompany the Afghans into Musa Qala once we deemed it safe.

I could not risk committing the Afghans to heavy combat. There were many experienced fighting men among them but they were still a nascent fighting force.

On our arrival the day before, heavy fighting meant our Chinook helicopter had to drop us a couple of miles away from the hill.

There we found a number of US casualties from Task Force 1 Fury, a US airborne battalion.

Capturing Roshan Hill, they had been caught by heavy Taliban mortar fire.

I met the commanding officer, Lt Col Brian Mennes and we agreed my small command post would occupy the top of the hill after dark.

He was not happy about sharing the hill.

He suspected I was there to keep an eye on him. But I knew I was only there to make my decision.

That evening, sunk into the comfort of our trench, we watched on a screen as the US forces destroyed a group of 30 or so Taliban fighters.

An AC-130 Spectre gunship circling overhead in the pitch dark could be heard but not seen. Its low drone is distinctive.

Using a thermal video feed insurgents were identified in the northern part of the town, and fire rained down.

It is surreal to watch a screen and then merely lift your head to witness the brief flashes and boom of high explosives in the dark.

The following day the fighting continued and my bodyguards engaged a Taliban machine gun position and killed its occupants.

The time for a decision was fast approaching. After discussing the situation with Mennes, I met with Muhaiyodin.

Were his men ready for the challenge? Was he ready for the Afghan Army to recapture Musa Qala?

The Taliban stronghold

When my Task Force - 52 Brigade - deployed to Helmand in September 2007 the Taliban occupation of Musa Qala and the international embarrassment it now represented was well set.

Here was a significant town being run by the Taliban in defiance of the International Security Assistance Force - the international coalition - and the Afghan government.

It had become iconic for all the wrong reasons.

The legacy of Musa Qala was enshrined in the "platoon houses" strategy of 2006. Helmand's Afghan governor demanded that the British deploy forces into the strategically important towns of Musa Qala, Nowzad and Sangin to push back Taliban encroachment.

The British brigade commander at the time, Ed Butler, caught between a rock and a hard place, felt he had no choice but to support the governor.

Troops were deployed into district centres and heavy fighting ensued. These remote outposts with small numbers of poorly resourced British troops, with inadequate helicopter support, came under constant attack.

The tenacity and bravery of those who fought for those platoon houses is well known. Had one been overrun and British soldiers captured it could very well have spelled disaster for the Afghan campaign.

It became a political imperative to extract British forces from Musa Qala and a messy, poorly executed deal was brokered with the tribal elders.

Within weeks the Taliban had been let back in and by February 2007 were in control of the town.

With Musa Qala in Taliban hands and operating a form of shadow government, the political dynamics were bleak. And the Taliban had a large force that could launch attacks into Helmand from a safe haven.

It was also proving to be a propaganda gift to the Taliban. And following the spring opium harvest of 2007 the Taliban was swinging into industrial production of heroin. Its northern and western distribution routes were "ungoverned space" with little chance of disruption by the coalition forces.

Throughout 2007 Taliban numbers had swollen within Musa Qala. Estimates varied from several hundred to over 2,000.

Drug production had been ramped up. It had not only become a safe base to operate from but also a major source of funding.

Any decision to recapture Musa Qala would be highly political.

That decision rested with then-President Hamid Karzai and the commander of ISAF, General Dan McNeil.

For our part, we determined that we would put Influence - the capital I is deliberate - at the centre of our operations.

Subtle persuasion

I assumed command of 52 Infantry Brigade in December 2004 after spending most of that year in Baghdad, Iraq.

In 2006 the brigade's role was changed - we would become experts in post-conflict operations, including reform of indigenous security forces.

In the summer of 2006, during Israel's action in southern Lebanon against Hezbollah, I was sent there with a small team to determine what could be done to assist the Lebanese government's armed forces in their strategic planning.

While in Beirut I received a call. The brigade would be deployed to Helmand in September 2007.

Events in Lebanon had added to the growing sense of unease that I had first experienced in Baghdad. When a powerful military is faced by apparent military "weakness", it can respond by an overuse of kinetic force - the "hard power" of attacking with guns, bombs and artillery.

I worried that in Afghanistan, as in Lebanon and before it, Iraq, hard power was not being properly balanced by the application of "soft power" - stabilisation, reconstruction, investment and negotiation.

We were also being out-fought in the propaganda war by an enemy that was more adept and agile in the use of the internet.

British forces in Musa Qala, 2006

Back in the UK we dusted off British Military Counter Insurgency (COIN) doctrine - in essence a handbook on guerrilla warfare - only to discover it hadn't been updated for over five years.

In that time we had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq but the UK's COIN doctrine was still discussed in terms that Northern Ireland veterans would recognise.

I contacted US Gen David Petraeus, who I had served with in Iraq, and who was leading the effort to rewrite US COIN doctrine. He shared a final draft with me which we circulated throughout the brigade and its units.

Our view of Helmand was that too much emphasis had been placed on the enemy and not enough on the population and understanding the environment.

We were surprised at how little was understood about the people who inhabited this conflict area.

What was the status of the tribal culture that had endured so much conflict and been criminalised through opium and heroin production?

British forces near Musa Qala, 2006

How had the ancient unwritten code of Pashtunwali - that placed emphasis on hospitality, revenge, honour and righteousness - merged so seamlessly with the arrival of Islam in Afghanistan? What were the stories Pashtuns told their children?

We wondered why the Taliban would seek to disrupt so much potential development being offered by the international community and why the local population who stood to gain the most would not provide support to us.

Our lack of understanding meant we interpreted such behaviour as irrational. Had we understood more, we would have known it was entirely rational.

Influence, the art of subtle persuasion, would form the backbone of our effort. The people of Helmand were some of the poorest in the world. They made choices just like the rest of us but how could we influence those choices?

The population was the prize. Bodycount - a corrupt measurement of success by numbers of Taliban killed - was to be discarded.

We would embed Influence into all of our thinking, planning and execution. Influence became the first element of any operational briefing and all planning.

Taliban v Tribes

The events that led to the battle for Musa Qala started with the seemingly innocuous defection of a supposed former Taliban commander, Mullah Salam, to the Afghan government.

Who was he? Where had he come from? It was all fairly opaque. Rumour and counter-rumour abounded.

But over the course of two or three days his defection gained considerable political momentum in Kabul.

He was talking to President Karzai every day and was allegedly aligned with a former governor of Helmand, the highly influential Sher Mohammad Akhundzade, whose tribal influence within Musa Qala remained strong.

For Western observers and diplomats, the ebb and flow of Afghan politics is a complex web. Once we learned the president was speaking directly to Mullah Salam we began to look at our choices.

The recapture of Musa Qala might now be an option.

We wanted to sow doubts in the minds of the town's Taliban. The plan started in October 2007.

If we pressurised the more ideologically driven elements of the Taliban leadership and understood the tribal dynamics better, we reasoned that opening up cracks in that leadership would be possible.

This might have a significant effect on the less ideologically motivated - predominantly narco foot soldiers, guns for hire on $10 a day, or those motivated by tribal or familial loyalty.

We decided to send our force of Warrior and Mastiff armoured vehicles from the Scots Guards and King's Royal Hussars to the area east of Musa Qala to start engaging the Taliban from a distance.

It sounds so easy. But the reality was a full-scale assault at a crossing of the Helmand River to get the force across.

40 Commando, Royal Marines, were required to conduct their first, and perhaps only, armoured assault river crossing - and in darkness.

The intelligence picture being shaped in Kabul suggested that Mullah Salam's defection presented an opportunity for the tribes of northern Helmand to rise up and drive the Taliban from Musa Qala.

This possibility particularly appealed to the British Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who was quick to see the benefits of a completely Afghan solution.

An increasingly attractive option for Sir Sherard and the diplomatic community emerged - an Afghan-driven solution that would kick the Taliban out of Musa Qala without the need for a fight.

My intelligence cell presented me with a different view.

Over 30 years of conflict, population movement and the impact of opium and heroin production had fractured the tight tribal structure.

Control of the drugs trade trumped wider tribal loyalties. Families and the smaller unit of the clan came before tribe.

The tribes were a potent force, but in northern Helmand they were not positioned to drive the Taliban from Musa Qala.

Mullah Salam had neither the support nor the influence. But he did have the president's attention and support.

Kabul, my intelligence cell argued, was engaged in wishful thinking.

Difficult decisions

The Warrior and Mastiff forces east of Musa Qala needed to be supplied. Returning to base for fuel and ammunition was not an option.

Supplies had to be parachuted from C130 transport aircraft into the desert. By the time the operation was completed, over 50 air drop missions had been flown.

During the advanced planning for Musa Qala and with the Warrior and Mastiff force beginning to have an effect - or so we thought - the Taliban launched a major two-day counter-offensive in the Helmand Valley.

They targeted the towns of Sangin and Garmsir to the south. They were very difficult days. A number of Royal Marines and soldiers were injured, some seriously. Our options seemed limited.

It was one of those days where the "loneliness of command" is felt with its full and potentially debilitating force. I continually told the staff to "hold their nerve" but there were clearly reservations on their part.

The doubts emerge, confidence can waver - you struggle to comprehend what to do, much less offer leadership. A gloomy fog can all too easily descend.

With the situation looking perilous I visited the injured soldiers at the hospital in Camp Bastion. One Royal Marine had a serious chest wound.

Days earlier I had visited his operating base and he had joked that he wanted to "get some action". I had advised him to be careful what he wished for.

And here he was about to be casevac'ed - the military term for a medical evacuation - back to the UK.

With all of this weighing on my mind I flew back to the taskforce HQ. As we skimmed over fields being prepared for the harvest I made a decision.

The sensible course of action would have been to strengthen Sangin and Garmsir to prevent further Taliban encroachment.

But we ignored the "sensible" course of action. We decided to "double down" on Musa Qala by deploying the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) to the west of the town.

The BRF are an elite group that can act as the eyes and ears of the taskforce. Mobile, lightly equipped, but able to quickly call in air support, they were able to deploy to Musa Qala overnight.

Within days they were engaging the Taliban.

Being in the midst of a brigade headquarters running at full tilt is intense. Activity drops off in the small hours but only if there are no "troops in contact" - nobody actually involved in a battle.

Plans for future operations are being thought through, developed, briefed on, staffed, resourced, prepped, rehearsed and amended. And that is before the actual business of giving any formal orders is completed.

For Musa Qala, we had to brief our immediate commander in Kandahar. Then it was on to Kabul to brief the commander of ISAF, General Dan McNeil.

We told the general how we thought Musa Qala should be recaptured. He liked our plan and its emphasis on Influence, approved it and emphasised that he had our backs on the political front in Kabul.

Meanwhile, the taskforce that would make the assault was being brought together. The same group would stabilise the town afterwards.

Drones from Iraq were sent to Kandahar and aircraft were dispatched from aircraft carriers.

In late November, news began to filter in that our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, would be visiting Afghanistan in the near future. There was no firm date.

We started to comprehend why so much emphasis was being placed on the quick solution supposedly offered by the "northern tribes of Helmand". The planning cycle for recapturing Musa Qala intensified.

Commanders often divide their plans into Intent and Effects.

Effects are reduced to single words. For example, Attack, Delay and Interdict are "kinetic-focused" ie fighting options. Persuade, Inform and Convince are the opposite - "non-kinetic".

A commander goes away on his own, draws his Intent, adds his Effects with some explanation and the staff then develop the Intent into a fully fledged plan. That's how a military operation is put together.

As details began to seep out about the prime minister's first visit to Afghanistan it became clear it might coincide with our operation to retake Musa Qala.

The potentially negative headlines were all too obvious. Little thought was given to potentially positive ones.

The British ambassador returned from some leave to discover that the "tribes of Helmand" were not going to rise up and expel the Taliban. We were going to launch a full-scale offensive to do so ourselves.

The clash with the prime ministerial visit was worse than originally thought.

Arriving before the operation commenced was more or less acceptable. Arriving after the operation was less desirable but doable as the results - for better or worse - would be known.

This left the worst option of all - arriving in the midst of the operation where the outcome was unclear.

But we had already given our orders. The "go" date had been set and was simply not moveable without a compelling reason. The air assault by the US forces would be conducted in the dark and this required light levels from the moon to be just right.

Delaying the operation was not an option.

Hard timings around night visibility, helicopter availability, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and the movement of thousands of men at night were now at an advanced stage.

Hundreds of helicopters, aircraft and drones were now being co-ordinated and readied. Most of them were American and many were being redeployed from Iraq. Such was the increasing importance of retaking Musa Qala.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was also having to balance not only the prime minister visiting but the fact that on return to the UK Gordon Brown would be making a statement to the House of Commons on 12 December on the future Afghan strategy.

Pressure from the British Embassy in Kabul mounted to delay the operation until the prime minister had visited and left Afghanistan. The plan was for him to visit the taskforce in Helmand on 10 December.


Our plan appeared to many people to be deeply flawed.

We decided to give up the element of surprise and instead adopt a technique best described as:


To achieve this we deployed a series of heavily armed forces to key points in the valley that led to Musa Qala. Each one in the sequence worked closer to the town.

After much soul-searching we decided to forego all operational security in discussing the detailed planning with the Afghan Army Brigade HQ.

This was an unusual step as there were genuine concerns over leaks of extremely sensitive information. In the end I made the final call.

The decision was mostly based on my complete trust of my counterpart Brig Ghori.

We also reasoned that if we were to make the Afghan security forces responsible for Musa Qala after its recapture they had to understand how we intended to go about achieving that.

We did keep the precise landing site and time of the air assault to the north of the town secret. With 16 Chinooks, with 60 or so US paratroopers in each, landing within a relatively small area, it had to be.

We ensured the Taliban had a route to flee lest they were tempted to stand and fight, and in so doing destroy the town. We also wanted to determine how much reconciliation could be achieved with their fighters.

The hardest challenge was going to be getting the population of Musa Qala to return to the town within days of its retaking. We were determined to avoid the fate of Nowzad, that lay 15km to the west.

After heavy fighting during the platoon houses deployment, the population of Nowzad had abandoned the town and never returned.

We decided to impose a ban on heavy weapons - such as artillery - being fired into the centre of Musa Qala.

The ban was particularly contentious. It meant those on the ground doing the fighting were potentially under greater risk in an already very dangerous situation.

The order remained. Permission would be needed before any heavy ordnance could be fired.

We also created a military stabilisation force that would swing into action on the town being retaken.

The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development were not prepared to deploy civilians to the town. We had to equip the military to do so instead.

Placing Influence front and centre of our planning was potentially controversial. The focus would be on the Afghan Army recapturing the town with the Afghan flag on top of the tower in the centre of the town.

The tower was symbolic as the Taliban had regularly hanged individuals from its scaffolding.

We wanted it to become iconic for the right reasons.

Just as the town's fall had been emblematic of the Taliban's power, so its recapture had to be emblematic of the Afghan Army's success - even if that success was built on the obscuration of British and American efforts.

US and British forces would do all of the actual fighting and soldiers from both countries would lose their lives retaking the town.

But it would be the Afghan Army who would occupy and be at the forefront of rebuilding the town.The we-are-coming-to-get-you elements of the operation went well.

40 Commando of the Royal Marines had deployed to a key crossing point between Musa Qala and Sangin, and after meeting some initial resistance from outlying Taliban positions, were now established in a series of blocking positions.

The Household Cavalry Regiment (HCR), in their armoured reconnaissance vehicles and Mastiffs, had also deployed to a crossing point south of Musa Qala and blocking positions to the east.

Again after a little resistance they were firmly established.

Somewhere out there was Prince Harry as well, but at no point did we ever consider his safety above and beyond the other 4,500 or so individuals deployed into the desert.

Encouragingly, much of the population were leaving Musa Qala but we were acutely aware that the success of the operation depended on getting them back.

Front-line politics

40 Commando and the HCR were now established in their positions and we were 24 hours away from launching the US paratroopers on 7 December.

The date of the prime minister's visit was now set for 10 December. I was set to deploy with my HQ on 8 or 9 December depending on when Roshan Hill was recaptured.

Gen Nick Houghton, then commander of joint operations at the Permanent Joint Headquarters, called me.

He explained that within Whitehall and the British Embassy in Kabul there was still considerable angst over the potential for the prime minister's visit to go horribly wrong.

Sir Sherard was also vexed that the planned statement on the future of Afghanistan on 12 December might be blown off course.

But having expressed his concerns, Gen Houghton also made it clear that whatever decision I made he would back me fully and I would not hear of it again.

I told him that the decision was made and that I would not change my mind or delay the operation. I would hold myself fully responsible for whatever unfolded. With Nick Houghton being a decent and honourable individual, that was indeed the last I heard of the matter.

One thing did however intrude. On 10 December, the prime minister arrived at Camp Bastion.

That evening, from within my trench and over the secure line, I was informed that a number of high-level rumours from the coalition HQ in both Kandahar and Kabul had started that we had recaptured Musa Qala.

We told them we hadn't. The question was repeated on 11 December.

We were now of the view that we were being pressurised to declare "victory" to coincide with the prime minister's visit to Afghanistan.

Again they were informed - much more forcibly - that any announcement on recapturing Musa Qala would have to wait until we actually had.

In a planned operation to draw the Taliban's attention away from the Chinook landing site to the north we conducted a series of feints in Nowzad and in a small village to the south west - Deh Zohr-e Sofla.

The first thing we heard was that a number of civilians, including children, had been killed.

During a firefight with the Taliban, a car had driven out of the village and headed towards the British, Afghan and US special forces contingent.

All had assumed it was a suicide bomber and fired at the vehicle.

It wasn't. It was innocent civilians who had been forced by the Taliban to drive out of the village.

In the heat of battle this kind of event is inevitable. No matter what is done to avoid it there is simply no means of ensuring it does not happen.

Within the HQ, as briefings were given on the incident, we gradually understood what had happened.

However, there was little time to consider it further. Detailed consideration would have to wait. In the HQ we moved on with executing the plan.

For the soldiers on the ground it was not so simple. It was a harrowing experience.

Once they had dealt with the casualties and administered first aid they too though had no choice but to continue with the plan.

Afghan liberation

My command post moved from the top of Roshan Hill and into a compound with Brig Muhaiyodin and his staff.

We went over the plan - again - to commit his forces to Musa Qala. The following morning - 12 December - his brigade would enter the town.

Every successful counter-insurgency campaign has a common theme - success is secured by indigenous security forces. More importantly, however, the eventual solution is invariably - with all but a few exceptions - political.

And for Afghanistan to be stable, political solutions had to prevail. But for politics to be successful, the Afghan National Army had to be credible.

On our arrival, we could not help but be impressed by the warrior spirit of our Afghan sister brigade, the 3rd Brigade of the 205th Hero Corps.

But as a fighting force it was still in its infancy. So we created the conditions for an unequivocal Afghan military success over the Taliban-aligned fighters around Musa Qala.

I was adamant in all my discussions with my commanders - I did not want any ISAF troops in Musa Qala as it was being liberated, unless support was needed to prevent failure.

Just as important was the need for the rest of Afghanistan, and indeed ISAF, to see Brig Muhaiyodin deliver an unequivocal success.

As it transpired, the operation to invest the town had been more successful than I had anticipated.

Our message that we were coming to get them had been backed up by events and the Taliban had suffered significant casualties in attempting to defend the town.

With the back door left open, the remainder fled.

Brig Muhaiyodin was not to know this and conducted a very sophisticated and deliberate clearance of the town.

He found, to his warriors' evident frustration but to my relief, that there was no-one left to fight.

The sight of his soldiers scaling the tower in the market square to replace the black Taliban flag with the flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was highly symbolic.

Winning the peace?

Within days the population of Musa Qala returned. The markets reopened. It was what our Influence-orientated approach had intended.

But we were always aware that more challenging than winning the battle would be winning the peace.

Our first responsibility, indeed the major responsibility of any government, was to provide a sufficiently safe and secure environment so that the population would return and the local economy could recover.

As with any counter-insurgency, we had to persuade the people that we could not only secure them but that we represented a better alternative than the Taliban.

Installing Mullah Salam as President Karzai's choice of governor was an important first step. But without any experience of government, he needed advice.

This would be no easy task as we were certain he had multiple agendas running and would be subject to unhealthy levels of influence from elsewhere.

After all, we knew he had been speaking to Sher Mohammad Akhundzade who, despite being forced out in acrimonious circumstances as the governor of Helmand in 2006, remained connected and influential amongst the Alizais tribe.

What we needed was an individual to sit alongside Mullah Salam. Ideally it would be a civilian counterpart.

Here we struck a problem which had dogged the campaign to date - civilian reconstruction officers from the FCO and DfID could not leave the heavily protected base in Lashkar Gah.

So it fell to a military officer to fill this role. Major Tom Tughendhat spent over a month living with, advising and drinking tea with Mullah Salam.

He offered counsel on how to set up a local government, as well as assisting Salam in reaching out to the local tribes who, as we had suspected, never had any intention of "rising up".

Fence-sitting, as history has proven on many occasions, is an Afghan specialty.

The period of Taliban misrule had also made the local economy heavily dependent on the opium industry. Several tons of opium and significant quantities of heroin and drug manufacturing equipment were destroyed after we recaptured the town.

But how were we to replace it?

We had to demonstrate the immediate benefits of Afghan government rule. We started very simple cash-for-work programmes, firstly to repair the damage caused by previous battles but very quickly thereafter to develop the infrastructure necessary to allow the local economy to grow.

Most of it was manual labour but it kept young men employed and pumped money into the local economy.

The psychological and physical defeat of the Taliban in Musa Qala also led to the possibility of over 200 Taliban fighters laying down their arms and coming over to the government side.

Instrumental in bringing about the negotiations was Michael Semple, who as deputy to the European Union special representative for Afghanistan, had been engaged in reaching out to the Taliban.

Semple also brought enormous wisdom and insight as a consequence of living in Afghanistan for many years and speaking fluent Dari. Meetings were held, Sir Sherard visited the HQ and, together with Semple and ourselves, a plan was mapped out.

Further outreach was conducted, plans and resources firmed up. A tipping point was reached.

The point came when Semple was required to brief the governor of Helmand. Within minutes he was arrested for "unauthorised activities".

Within days Semple was expelled from Afghanistan. An enormous opportunity had been lost.

The complexities of Afghan politics conspired - once more - to put short-term political considerations before longer term progress.

Musa Qala's fate

The battle that we fought to regain control of Musa Qala by expelling the Taliban and re-establishing Afghan government control has now become a footnote in the history of Helmand.

Given the rich, convoluted and varied history of conflict in Afghanistan there is no reason to expect it to be anything else.

And yet to those that were there and who shared in the success of the operation - both Afghan and coalition forces - it will be an operation that stays with them forever.

Some will remain profoundly affected by those who died, some by what they witnessed, some by the scale of the personal and collective challenge it represented.

For my part I believe the focus on embedding Influence as an integral element of the entire operation made the difference in not only the number of casualties suffered, but also how its recapture was perceived in the minds of Afghans.

For many - and it is a view I have heard many times - the recapture of Musa Qala was representative of something very important.

It represented a success. Yet genuine success in Afghanistan can only be truly gained by tangible progress accompanied by longevity.

Musa Qala was recaptured by the allies with a desire to exert long-term influence that would be both durable and able to withstand the inevitable fight back by the Taliban. Casualties - both civilian, Taliban and coalition were minimised.

The population returned to the town. They were indeed the prize.

From 12 December 2007 Musa Qala remained in government control. That status quo was continually challenged.

With Musa Qala having again been briefly captured by the Taliban this summer, many will again question the nature of the claim that its recapture in December 2007 represents the basis of durable success.

Such is the ebb and flow of the conflict in Helmand that success will remain difficult to discern.

This holds true for the emotional core of those who fought for Musa Qala.

Whoever you are, when you go to such an extreme environment as Helmand it is never the same person who returns. For most that emotional core is not so much damaged as changed.

Unfortunately there have been too few Musa Qalas. Many more were required and for longer.