Marjah: The Non-Existent City the Military Said We Conquered in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON - For weeks, the United States public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan war against what it was told was a "city of 80,000 people" as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marjah was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centers in Helmand.
It turns out, however, that the picture of Marjah presented by military officials and reported by major news media is one of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as an historic turning point in the conflict.
Marjah is not a city or even a real town, but a few clusters of farmers' homes amid a large agricultural area that covers much of the southern Helmand River Valley.
"It's not urban at all," an official of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who asked not to be identified, admitted to Inter Press Service (IPS) on Sunday. He called Marjah a "rural community".
"It's a collection of village farms, with typical family compounds," said the official, adding that the homes were reasonably prosperous by Afghan standards.
Richard B Scott, who worked in Marjah as an adviser on irrigation for the US Agency for International Development as recently as 2005, agrees that Marjah has nothing that could be mistaken as being urban. It is an "agricultural district" with a "scattered series of farmers' markets", Scott told IPS in a telephone interview.
The ISAF official said the only population numbering tens of thousands associated with Marjah is spread across many villages and almost 200 square kilometers, or about 125 square miles.
Marjah has never even been incorporated, according to the official, but there are now plans to formalize its status as an actual "district" of Helmand province.
The official admitted that the confusion about Marjah's population was facilitated by the fact that the name has been used both for the relatively large agricultural area and for a specific location where farmers have gathered for markets.
However, the name Marjah "was most closely associated" with the more specific location, where there are also a mosque and a few shops.
That very limited area was the apparent objective of "Operation Moshtarak", to which 7,500 US, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Afghan troops were committed amid the most intense publicity given any battle since the beginning of the war.
So how did the fiction that Marjah is a city of 80,000 people get started?
The idea was passed onto news media by the US Marines in southern Helmand. The earliest references in news stories to Marjah as a city with a large population have a common origin in a briefing given on February 2 by officials at Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base there.
The Associated Press published an article the same day quoting "Marine commanders" as saying that they expected 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be "holed up" in the "southern Afghan town of 80,000 people". That language evoked an image of house-to-house urban street fighting.
The same story said Marjah was "the biggest town under Taliban control" and called it the "linchpin of the militants' logistical and opium-smuggling network". It gave the figure of 125,000 for the population living in "the town and surrounding villages".
ABC news followed with a story the next day referring to the "city of Marjah", claiming that the city and the surrounding area "are more heavily populated, urban and dense than other places the marines have so far been able to clear and hold".
The rest of the news media followed with that image of a bustling, urbanized Marjah in subsequent stories, often using "town" and "city" interchangeably.
As "Operation Moshtarak" ("Together") began, US military spokesmen were portraying Marjah as an urbanized population center. On February 14, on the second day of the offensive, US Marine spokesman Lieutenant Josh Diddams said the marines were "in the majority of the city at this point".
He also used language that conjured images of urban fighting, referring to the insurgents holding some "neighborhoods".
A few days into the offensive, some reporters began to refer to a "region", but only created confusion rather than clearing the matter up. One report referred to "three markets in town - which covers 80 square miles".
A "town" with an area of 80 square miles (207.2 square kilometers) would be bigger than such US cities as Washington, DC, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
The decision to hype up Marjah as the objective of "Operation Moshtarak" by planting the false impression that it is a good-sized city would not have been made independently by the marines at Camp Leatherneck.
A central task of "information operations" in counter-insurgency wars is "establishing the COIN [counter-insurgency] narrative", according to the Army Counter-insurgency Field Manual as revised in 2006 under General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command.
That task is usually done by "higher headquarters" rather than in the field, as the manual notes.
The COIN manual asserts that news media "directly influence the attitude of key audiences toward counter-insurgents, their operations and the opposing insurgency". The manual refers to "a war of perceptions, conducted continuously using the news media".
General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the ISAF, was clearly preparing to wage such a war in advance of the Marjah operation. In remarks made just before the offensive began, McChrystal invoked the language of the counter-insurgency manual, saying, "This is all a war of perceptions."
The Washington Post reported on February 22 that the decision to launch the offensive against Marjah was intended largely to impress US public opinion with the effectiveness of the US military in Afghanistan by showing that it could achieve a "large and loud victory".
The false impression that Marjah was a significant city was an essential part of that message.