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.