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
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
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
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
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.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.