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Say hello to Marjah ... or 'Little America'
By Peter Lee
To Western reporters, Helmand is the poppy-growing heartland of the Taliban and
the home of Marjah, the demonstration project for the Barack Obama
administration's new and improved Afghan strategy, "Operation Moshtarak"
To the locals, the irrigated heartland of Helmand has another name: "Little
To the good fortune of observers interested in the context of current US
counter-insurgency operations, the backstory of Helmand is told in one of the
best books written about modern Afghanistan, Opium Season, by Joel
Hafverstein (The Lyons Press: Guilford, Connecticut, 2007).
Hafverstein's book centers on the year he spent working as a United States
Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor in the province of
Helmand in the vicinity of the village of Marjah, the focus of the highly
publicized "Operation Moshtarak", which sent 15,000 Western and Afghan troops
into Marjah and surrounding areas to drive out the Taliban in February and to
raise the Afghan flag over the village after several years of Taliban control.
"Moshtarak" is the centerpiece of the bigger, better and smarter "clear, hold,
build and transfer" strategy. After Marjah is subdued, the armed forces will
stick around and ensure that the Karzai government is able to effectively
administer the area.
General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, inadvertently
invoking an unfortunate coffin analogy, declared stoutly, "We've got a
government in a box, ready to roll in." 
There's been a lot of informational warfare related to the campaign, in order
to convince a weary international audience that Marjah is stern and successful
proof that the West has discovered the will and the way to lick the Taliban. As
Gareth Porter pointed out in his article Marjah: The City That Never Was ,
the epic character of the battle of Marjah has been somewhat overstated. A US
Army briefing started the meme that Marjah was a "city of 80,000". As the story
developed, it also became an "opium capital of Afghanistan" filled with 1,000
Taliban ready to fight to the death.
Marjah, however, is not an Afghan Fallujah, an urbanized, hostile bastion of
anti-Western fanatics that must be subdued through savage street-by-street,
house-by-house fighting, as happened in the Iraqi city.
It's a little market center, fields, ditches and mud houses with a tradition of
close American engagement that dates to the 1950s when, as Hafverstein's book
tell us, the Helmand River region was known as "Little America".
From the perspective of agriculture and urbanization, virtually the only
worthwhile part of Helmand province is the small patch of green near the banks
of the Helmand River. In the 1950s, the Harry S Truman administration embarked
on an aid project to support the Afghan government in extending that patch of
green into the surrounding countryside with an Afghan version of the Tennessee
Valley Authority: the HAVA (Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority).
American engineering giant Morrison-Knudsen dammed the Helmand and Arghandab
rivers and built a network of irrigation and drainage canals to bring water to
communities - like Marjah - near the Helmand. Morrison-Knudsen also built most
of the city of Lashkar Gah - the capital of Helmand province where the two
rivers come together - in the US image of tract houses and tree-lined streets,
in order to house its engineers and operations.
Lashkar Gah, now a city of 200,000 people, has always been firmly under Afghan
government control. Operation Moshtarak should be understood as an effort to
extend effective control into Lashkar Gah's irrigated rural hinterlands.
Google Earth has recently uploaded a set of images that show Lashkar Gah and
the area around it with eerie clarity. You can see the neat American-style
streets and structures at the heart of the provincial capital, and the hulking
HAVA headquarters - the largest building - that provided the office space for
Hafverstein's USAID activities. There is the Helmand River, a narrow, deeper
channel meandering through a broad, desiccated riverbed. You see a palm-shaped
patch of green in the surrounding flats, veined by Morrison Knudsen's
irrigation canals. Upriver are the two jewel-like reservoirs created by damming
And a few kilometers west of Lashkar Gah, across the river at 31 degrees 32' 22
north, longitude: 64 degrees 9' 28 east, you can see Marjah. Not a lot of there
there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein's famous remark about Oakland, California:
a few compounds scattered between fields crisscrossed by roads and the
Far up beyond the irrigated region is Nawzad, mysteriously and imperiously
renamed Now Zad for the visit of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on March
Apparently because Marjah was still in the clear-hold part of the process and
not completely pacified, Gates visited Nawzad instead to extol a success story,
albeit one dating from last December: the US Marines' successful expulsion of a
determined Taliban presence from Nawzad, an old-fashioned confrontation that,
instead of creating a welcome new sense of security had depopulated the town of
Nawzad is in Hafverstein's book, too. Roads go into Nawzad, he notes, but don't
go anywhere else. The town hugs a riverbed in a narrow valley, butting up
against the mountainous wastes of Helmand's north, the stronghold of a
Google Earth shows lines of stippled dots - each representing a manway
accessing the indigenous irrigation tunnels - the ancient karez of
Central Asia - that serve as the substitute for the modern canals of the
Helmand River Valley and the focus of USAID's engagement with the remote
It isn't Helmand's heartland - it's a distant and contested frontier, and a
hint that the US writ might not reach beyond the populated agricultural centers
to the wild and mountainous north of the province.
Hafverstein arrived in Lashkar Gah in 2004 to participate in a USAID project to
provide alternate incomes - and compensation for the economic disruption of the
opium eradication campaign - by paying thousands of locals to do
pick-and-shovel work clearing out the silted-up drainage canals that keep the
irrigated fields from becoming waterlogged and salinated.
In contrast to the military - Lashkar Gah was also home to a
euphemistically-named "Provincial Reconstruction Team" composed of a
hunkered-down National Guard battalion - the USAID team accumulated
considerable local knowledge, contacts and goodwill in places like Marjah,
Babaji and Nawzad as it staffed up with local hires, purchased thousands of
shovels and negotiated with local leaders for access, labor and security.
The mission ended tragically as several local members of the USAID staff were
murdered, perhaps at the order of opium lords angry at USAID's diversion of
labor that was urgently needed for the opium harvest.
Hafverstein's thoughtful and knowledgeable book provides a vivid picture of the
dynamics of Afghan rural life It includes portraits of Afghan co-workers that
are sympathetic and, in light of the horrible end some of them met, extremely
In one passage, Hafverstein explains Afghan attitudes toward opium - and other
In Afghanistan, where all drugs were officially illegal,
there was no question about the relative gravity of drug use. Hashish smoking
was a widespread peccadillo, opium smoking (as distinct from heroin) only
moderately more serious. Down here in Pashtun country, alcohol was the truly
wicked drug, the addictive life-destroyer explicitly condemned by God. People
indulged in it, certainly, but almost always in bad conscience. And the alcohol
trade was a Western hypocrisy which the farmers of Helmand felt very acutely.
"Why can American farmers grow wine and send it here, but we are bad men if we
grow poppy and send it back?" I heard on a trip to Nad-i-Ali.
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