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MUSA QALA, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Flushed with victory after recapturing the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala this week, Afghan forces on Saturday promised to stay put this time and build schools, clinics and a new mosque.
But few families have returned to the dusty, deserted streets of the opium-trading town since the fighting. Those that had were wary the troops would soon leave and Musa Qala would again become the focus of fighting and the Taliban would return.
"We have three objectives in Musa Qala," Afghan General Mohuiddin Ghori told reporters at his newly captured headquarters in the town swarming with Afghan and British troops.
"To get rid of terrorists and al Qaeda, to bring peace and security to the town and pave the way for reconstruction and rehabilitation projects," he said.
Thousands of British and U.S. troops launched the offensive to capture Musa Qala from several hundred Taliban fighters last week, paving the way for the Afghan army to move in and seize the town, a landmark operation for the fledgling force.
After the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks, the extremely light presence of international troops in Musa Qala and Helmand, and the near absence of the Afghan state, allowed the insurgents to regroup and turn the town into one of their major centres of power.
British troops entered Musa Qala in the middle of last year, only to pull out again in October 2006 after daily Taliban attacks that at times reached their perimeter defences. They left the collection of shabby concrete shops and houses under the control of tribal elders in a truce criticised by their U.S. allies.
But the Taliban seized the town again in February and proceeded to set up a shadow administration, their own courts and, while Afghan and foreign forces held off from attacking, Musa Qala saw a measure of security absent elsewhere in Afghanistan due to the constant threat of insurgent suicide attacks.
As troops massed outside their town, the people of Musa Qala once more fled into the surrounding desert to sit out the conflict. Four days after Afghan and foreign forces captured the town, few had returned, all but a handful of shops remained shuttered and soldiers heavily out-numbered townsmen. The town is normally home to about 25,000 people.
"I have no other desire than the peace and security of Afghanistan," said one man in the town square where the Taliban had hanged those they accused of spying for foreigners.
Insecurity and the constant toing and froing of forces over three decades of Afghan conflicts makes many circumspect of committing to any side. The Soviet army captured Musa Qala from mujahideen fighters in a remarkably similar operation in 1983.
"We don't know much about the Taliban government, and we have no information about this government," said shopkeeper Abdul Hashim cautiously as Afghan troops crowded round him.
General Ghori, a tall, broad-shouldered, bald-headed man with a moustache, himself once an officer with the pro-Soviet Afghan army, strode across the ruins of local government buildings destroyed by the Taliban when they last took the town and enthused to local boys about how he would build schools.
He also pledged to rebuild the adjacent mosque flattened by foreign jets targeting Taliban militants in January 2006.
But some were unconvinced and, like many Afghans, said they just wanted security and an end to the fighting.
"Don't build us schools, don't build us a mosque, bring us security," said Habibullah Mir. "Don't give us anything, just don't kick us out from our homes. Free us from bombardments, free us from this misery and pain. Bring security to our people ... and the nation is yours."
Despite their protestations to the contrary, Afghans suspect that like previous conquering armies, international forces will one day depart leaving a beleaguered, weak state to fight alone.
"You will be here for only five days," Mir declared. "After that the Taliban will come and behead us."