Correcting the Record

by Joshua Foust on 2/8/2010 · 13 comments

An Open Letter to all Journalists and Pundits Covering Operation Moshtarak in Marjeh, Helmand:

When the Marine Corps spearheaded a massive new operation to retake parts of Central Helmand Province last year, there was little mention in the press about how common such offensives were. In just one area, Garmsir, it was the third year in a row a major influx of troops had to “liberate” the hapless locals from Taliban control.

Neither of the campaigns last summer, Operation Panther’s Claw, or Operation Khanjar, depending on whose military you followed at the time, was the largest nor the most geographically extensive the region had seen. In 2006, Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar, and Zabul saw Operation Mountain Thrust, an 11,000 man campaign to remove the Taliban from selected areas.

So while it’s wonderful to hear the pretty words ISAF’s various officials say about the possibly in-progress operation in Marjeh (or Marja, Marjah, or Margah, depending on the transliteration scheme), it is important to remember that ISAF and U.S. forces are not strangers to this place. A brief list:

  • May 12, 2007: “an air attack by Western forces killed at least seven civilians, including women and children, in Marja district of Helmand early on Friday, witnesses said on Saturday.”
  • February 28, 2008: “Militants ambushed an opium poppy eradication force in southern Afghanistan, sparking clashes that left 25 Taliban fighters and a policeman dead, police said Thursday. Four other militants died when a bomb went off. Insurgents ambushed the drug eradication force Wednesday in Marja district of Helmand province, killing one police officer and wounding two, said Gen. Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, the provincial police chief.”
  • May 21, 2009: “U.S. Forces in Afghanistan said Thursday 16 militants have been killed and a cache of drugs and weapons has been located as part of an ongoing operation. The operation in the city of Marjeh by Afghan National Army Commandos and coalition forces also resulted in the discovery of a cache of military weapons, including 10 rocket-propelled grenades and six mortars.”

That last bit—10 grenades and six mortars, or about 12 hours-worth of IED operations in Helmand alone, was sold by the ISAF PAO office as a “great blow against the insurgents” (the U.S. also seized and burned several hundred pounds of bagel topping).

I mention this not to attack ISAF for being active and trying to “shape” the campaign beforehand, but to inject some much needed context into our discussions of these operations. Public estimates indicate the town of Marjeh holds, at the most, 1,000 or so Taliban operatives—men who have vowed to blend into the civilian population when the troops arrive. It also contains some of—but by no means the majority—of Helmand’s vast opium industry.

Please, journalists, I beg of you: when ISAF portrays this area as a “breeding ground” for insurgents and drugs, ask questions—not just about the bizarre word choice (they’re just like cockroaches!), but about why they need 15,000 troops to secure a small town in a district with barely a hundred thousand people and some poppy farms.

To long term observers of Afghanistan, these operations happen with a depressing regularity—and all too often the coverage resembles cheerleading more than it does journalism. So I (furthermore) beg of you: please do not act surprised when we have to have another “surge” next year when more troops arrive, and please do not act outraged when all the farmers prevented from planting opium this year freak out because they’re defaulting on their narco-debts and their economies are crashing.

There is so much more to discuss about the misleading ways Helmand is portrayed—about its agriculture (which is more than just poppies), about how horribly USAID has failed ever to provide suitable crop alternatives even when it brags of doing so, and about how its people are so cynical with the Coalition they won’t really help the soldiers in any great numbers because of how often they’ve been abandoned after doing so—and so much to discuss about the history of Western operations there. It would mislead your readers to discuss Marjeh/Marja(h) in a vacuum, as if going into that area is a new thing. Marjeh used to be known for its vast cotton fields, and until just a few years ago Nad-e-Ali District wasn’t the closed off Taliban stronghold is now appears to be. Examining why things there are so bad now, and using that as the background for why we must now go occupy the area with a substantial percentage of the troops available in Afghanistan, would serve the public so much more meaningfully than the empty sloganeering that occupies the current discussion.

Love,
Josh


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 13 comments }

benjamin February 8, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Hey Josh,

I just came from Lashkur Gah; the Taliban are cockroaches. They are sub-human and deserve everything they get from us. This op was originally scheduled for early December, but we were delayed so Obama could dither with our maneuver battalion stuck on the tarmac at Cherry Point—-waiting.

If it was truly our intent to slaughter innocents, we wouldn’t have so widely publicized this Marjeh operation to begin with. We are affording civilians and Taliban alike to flee the field of battle in order to minimize the blood letting.

If you haven’t been there and spent time (more than a few weeks, please) on foot patrols, interacting with the locals, then shut your face.

Thanks,
Ben
ps- and when they quote “15000 troops” you need to understand only about 3800 of those are actual trigger-puller, infantry-type forces. The rest are support troops (medical, motor transport, artillrey, air crew/pilots, ect.). And we need these additional forces so we don’t have to pull them from already pacified areas in Helmand in order to get this done. That would be a death sentence for the locals that have been cooperating for us if we had to move our forces from secured areas to Marjeh.

Joshua Foust February 8, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Ben,

Not sure where you got it that I’m accusing the U.S. of slaughtering innocents.

During the Battle of Fallujah U.S. forces publicly stated their assumption that anyone they came across was automatically an insurgent, since they had given all the innocent people enough time to leave. I have nothing to indicate they deliberately seek out civilians to kill, but there is a large body of data that suggests bad assumptions and sloppy ROE do result in needless civilian casualties.

That being said, even if the op was scheduled for December, that still has us broadcasting our intentions for the area for three months beforehand instead of six; all the same arguments apply.

AJK February 9, 2010 at 12:04 am

Just a few thoughts on this while I avoid writing any long-form thoughts of my own:

So if only 3800/15000 are trigger-pullers, where are the other ~11200 going to sleep? Probably in a big base (or a few big bases) of some sort, right? I’m off on the exact names for the different levels of bases, but if we’re not talking about a FOB, we’re talking about something similar, yeah?

So if there’s these big bases for the non-trigger-pullers, they need to be defensed from those cockroaches, right? Probably by trigger-pullers, I would assume. I won’t hazard a guess as to the exact number out of 3800.

So you have a few thousand left to deal with ~100,000 folks. Of course, you’re hoping that everyone left the town to give you time to rebuild/rebrand the joint. I’m not even going to ask how you’re planning to do that. Assumedly the plan is to train up ANA/ANP/ANAP to deal with the area themselves while USAID comes in to do the rebranding stuff.

But if its the rebranding that’s important, why chest-puff about trigger-pullers? Why bring in all these support staff to build all these big bases and keep them running? Why have a big offensive at all? To replace their security with our security? Then why is there a focus on the Field of Battle?

I’m just confused about the mission, and I have been for a while now. OK, they got all these folks in Marjah (again) and they’re going to get some security going on (again). There’ just this huge jump from Step 1 to Step 9 that doesn’t have a reality-based parallel.

Cyrus February 9, 2010 at 2:54 am

What an incrdible waste of my tax dollars and basic human life this whole Afghan “adventure” has become. Benjamin, if you feel so strongly about the Taliban, then you should consider fighting them out of your own pocket.

Joey February 9, 2010 at 6:25 am

Why do they tell the Taliban there on the way? What is the point of giving them a weeks notice….

BruceR February 9, 2010 at 8:12 am

To be fair, one SOF raid, an Afghan PEF blunder and an air strike are not a lot, really. Marjeh’s not like Garmsir, where as you say it’s been in and out for over three years… this will be the first real Western on-the-ground troop presence in that area, ever. And to some degree you could argue that this is putting a new level of pressure on a previous Taliban safe zone (which a year ago, it certainly was).

Now, will this be like the first Garmsir op was, just one of many in retrospect? Possibly, but it’s clearly too early to say that.

Joshua Foust February 9, 2010 at 10:46 am

Bruce, there were a lot more operations. I just highlighted some of what I found on a ten minute googling expedition.

Even so, that doesn’t obscure a troubling fact. Five years ago, USAID was active in Marjeh. Now, it’s some pit of dark evil. What happened? How could we have let it get so bad so fast?

BruceR February 9, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Josh, I just know the place from late 08-09, where it was considered effectively un-enterable by coalition forces. Canadians have been all over Helmand since 2006 but we’ve never been there. Given that the war in the south really only started, at least ISAF-casualty wise, in late 2005, it’s no surprise to me that it was more permissive before that point. It really has been under significantly stronger insurgent influence than Garmsir over the last few years. Nothing’s impossible, but I’d still be surprised if one could find any reports which indicate ISAF forces even staying the night previously.

Warlord February 9, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Marjah – The Grapes of Wrath
http://www.thewarlordproject.com/?p=218

Tintin February 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Re: numbers of troops — it is dumb to try to extrapolate from the size of MEB-A the number of personnel who will be going into Marja. That has been made very clear by Marine press releases and journalists’ reports: the assault force, which is the main effort of RCT-7, comprises two full Marine infantry battalions (1/6 and 3/6, both newly arrived in theater) and one Army Stryker infantry battalion (-) that has relocated from Zabul (4-23), backed by air and by a Marine artillery battalion a few miles back which has transitioned in recent weeks from doing infantry-like patrolling to keeping whole batteries ready to fire. The three infantry battalions are headquartered at austere forward locations around Marja that they’ve moved into in recent days. (Altogether this is an operation that does not look at all like Falluja 2004 in terms of forces being employed: it looks like Baquba 2007.) There is no need to speculate about numbers when all the information about where the different battalions and even companies are based and operating is right there in the open-source material.

Presumably there are SOF shaping operations going on as well, either by JSOC or the southern commando kandak (and SF) or both, similar to the attack by commandos and SF Josh mentioned.

I agree with the above commenter that this is nothing like Garmsir, where battalion and occasionally two-battalion clearance operations have been happening once or twice a year since 2007. Since the fighting in Helmand really began in 2006 (when the Brits deployed a lone battalion to the province, compared to 13 there now), Marja has been neglected (although how recently it turned into a real sanctuary like it is now, I don’t know). I have no doubt that patrols have passed through the edges of the Marja area at various times and been hit, like in the example Josh cited. But during all those Garmsir and Gereshk operations in 2007-8, I doubt more than a platoon every got close to Marja. In 2009, during the big clearance operations in the Nawa-Nad Ali-Babaji stretch of the valley, Marja was very obviously treated as an economy of force operation, even more so than Sangin and Musa Qala and Reg, falling into a pattern of multi-brigade operations that looks very familiar from Iraq 2007-8. That is, the twin main efforts of the MEB and TFH in that Nawa-NA-Babaji area had something like 6-7 full battalions devoted to them. Sangin, Musa Qala, Now Zad, and Reg were all “hold-what-we’ve-got,” economy-of-force areas with a battalion devoted to each. Marja proper was the next rung down the economy-of-force latter: no conventional forces were devoted to it, because it was a no-go zone. Hence the operation by the commando kandak and SF advisors — that kandak is essentially RC-South’s SOF asset, and this is a common role for SOF assets on loan to corps and divisions. Think about the way ISOF and their SF advisors, sort of the equivalent to the commandos, operated in Sadr City in 2007 and other untouchable Shia areas in early 2008: they were used by corps to keep the pressure on sanctuary areas that were no-go zones for conventional areas (for either practical or political reasons).

Also, I do not think Operation Mountain Thrust is a good comparison point. It was not a targeted offensive in the way that this thing is, or the operations last summer were, at all: just a division-level name for a variety of battalion-size operations mounted roughly at the same time across four provinces. Concentrating a full brigade’s worth of combat power to clear a particular area like Marja is something that has only happened once before in Helmand, with the Brits last summer in the Babaji area. I am not saying this will be any more successful or enduring, but it represents a very dense concentration of infantry companies that is new to Afghanistan (although things just like this happened probably 20-30 times in Iraq over the years).

BruceR February 10, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Even calling an all-Afghan PEF group a patrol is stretching it, Tintin. ISAF (or the ANA) has rarely had any idea where PEF was, who they were, or what they were doing. We had better visibility on PMCs a year ago. If your last friendly force casualty at the hand of insurgents in an entire area was a single probably untrained and unaccountable local “policeman” two years ago, that’s a no-go area.

Tintin February 10, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Fair point.

Tintin February 10, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Of course, I agree that this operation will likely simply create another Marja someplace else in Helmand that so far only SOF have poked at, or that no one has poked at because the enemy wasn’t there and will now move there. Then the pattern described above will be repeated. Fun!

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