Mythbusting Marjeh

by Joshua Foust on 2/10/2010 · 15 comments

Now that we are, finally, attacking an area we’ve been promising to attack since last October, the media is dutifully reporting on it. And by “reporting,” I really mean “repeating whatever the nearest uniform happens to mumble about it.” Because really, why should anyone there or in the home office check easily checked facts about Afghanistan? What matters is getting the story out, even if most of it is ISAF deliberately trying to spin a specific version of reality. So with that in mind, let’s talk myths!

  • Marjeh is an “opium capital.” Not really. Helmand itself is Afghanistan’s opium capital, but there is nothing especially poppylicious about Marjeh. Rather, the military tends to call wherever it goes in Helmand some important opium name. Last summer, for example, ISAF was calling Garmsir Helmand’s main “opium bazaars“—and Marjeh is a smaller town with less commerce. Before that, it was Sangin.
  • Marjeh is a “Taliban stronghold.” Not really. Almost by definition, anywhere the U.S. sends troops, whether it’s a nearby village, a previously abandoned district, or a new area the U.S. has never been, is going to be called a Taliban Stronghold. Many Taliban fled to Marjeh during the big offensive last year; that doesn’t mean Marjeh is the only place the Taliban have holed up, even in Helmand.
  • Marjeh has 85,000/100,000 people. This one is everywhere, and it’s bizarre. If you look at the “town” from space, it is little more than a collection of housing compounds in a big farming area. Back in November, before ISAF’s “shaping” campaign, the Washington Post called Marjeh “a city of about 50,000 people.” That’s at least a more reasonable estimate. Just remember this: Lashkar Gah, the closest thing to a city in Helmand, only has 200,000 people in a huge geographic area (the actual “urban” part of the city has at the most 50,000). It’s about as densely populated as a Midwestern college town. Marjeh is smaller.
  • 100/200/300/0 families have fled before the assault. This is one of the most puzzling assertions we find out there. Assuming an average rural household size of 10 people (nationally it’s about 8), 100 families leaving is a thousand people. 300 families leaving is 3,000 people. While that’s not the entire town, anywhere else “thousands flee fighting” is a major story—especially so if the Taliban have mined the area so heavily those who want to escape can’t.
  • The Taliban are foreigners. This is the most puzzling of all, repeated most recently by the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan. Only some of the people fighting with the Taliban are foreign to Afghanistan; the two most revelatory stories about the Taliban post-2001 were written by Antonio Giustozi and Abdulkader Sinno—both of whom argue forcefully that the Taliban is so successful because it is familiar, not because it is foreign. Giustozzi in particular lays out across several books the inarguable fact that the Taliban primarily recruit locally—they are not creations of foreigners, but of Afghanistan. It’s why they’re so damned tough as enemies.
  • Marjeh is the last phase to a successful Helmand campaign. Much like General McChrystal’s bizarre claim that Afghanistan is no longer a dire situation, this is an assertion unsupported by facts. Instead of arguing this in a tiny bullet point, let’s just point out that the actual fighting men in Helmand see the whole thing going nowhere. And that’s not just the enlisted gripers—that’s a full-bird Colonel saying so.

Alright, this is exhausting. This blog spends an inordinate amount of time complaining about reporters and pundits getting very basic facts wrong. I think it’s time to move on to something else for a while. If you’re finding other weird myths about the place, add ‘em in the comments.


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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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{ 15 comments }

Nabil Elibiary February 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

The whole claim that taking some city will break the back of the Taliban is bazzar. Gorella war by difinition do not hold land, especially against overwhelming numbers. The Taliban are being attacked by 10 times their numbers and they have only 3 wepons gun, RPG, and IDE. What are the odds of attempting to hold land.
On the other hand, the Britich and Canadians captured several areas but failed to hold land. They think this time will be different, because they trained some afghani soldiers, makes sense.

Toryalay Shirzay February 10, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Yes the Taliban recruit locally but what your post left out is the fact that the Taliban themselves are recruited by foreigners such as Pakistan,Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil shieks.

BruceR February 10, 2010 at 4:21 pm

One quibble re “strongholds”, no argument that the press will call it that regardless, but in this case it really was true a year ago. Without going into details there was strong evidence of a “broad daylight” insurgent presence above and beyond what we saw as the Afghan baseline in Marjeh. Logistically and operationally, it was one of their most significant hubs in the south. Comparisons to Fallujah after the contractor incident are not entirely inapt: we left it alone, and the insurgents responded by exerting an unusual level of open dominance. This wasn’t just night letters and roadblocks anymore.

Give the military at least some credit. They are clearly investing a lot of effort in this place now on the basis of some evidence: there are lots of other places they could be expanding the inkspot to right now instead. It can’t be all self-delusion.

Whether it will have any lasting effect or whether the insurgents will just move to the next village down the road is a perfectly valid question, of course, but to say they’re risking lots of Western and Afghan lives for no good reason whatsoever in an area the insurgents as you say have likely “mined heavily”is not plausible.

Joshua Foust February 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Bruce,

I get where you’re coming from, but how was Marjeh in 2009 any different than Musa Qala in 2007, or Sangin in 2008? These are areas that hosted active shows of force (or fly the flag, or whatever you want to call it) by the Taliban during those times, and were ALSO significant centers of insurgent activity that destabilized nearby areas.

My point isn’t that the Taliban aren’t there, it’s that our philosophy of creating and then going after strongholds doesn’t work. That’s why I feel comfortable saying it’s no good reason—the people doing Marine IPB are operating in a vacuum, and it’s really obvious.

anan February 10, 2010 at 8:06 pm

On foreign fighters; you are right about them not being a large factor in Helmand and the South. However, there have been many foreign fighters in Khost, Nuristan and Kunduz. The foreign fighters can be thought of as combat embedded advisors (similar to Bruce for the ANA), and pack far above their weight in numbers.

Some of the foreign fighters also fight pretty darn well and have a major strategic impact. Even you, Joshua, write about both battles in Nuristan. And you wrote a fair bit about Kunduz. If even you write about foreign fighter intensive operations and areas, this demonstrates that foreign fighters matter quite a bit nationally.

Perhaps Bruce could discuss this better than I do; however, villagers from Helmand and Kandahar frequently travel to Pakistan to talk to the QST and get their buy in for this or that. This suggests the foreign influence is not insignificant even in Helmand.

Recently, there have been reports that the Taliban have been having difficulty recruiting among the sons of Helmand. By contrast ANA recruitment in Helmand has surged. This suggests locals think the Taliban is losing inside Helmand at least. {Granted, this is far from the case in many other parts of the Pashtun belt.}

This dynamic has caused the Taliban to employ a lot of Pashtuns from outside of Helmand for operations inside Helmand.

You asked why is Marjeh different this time.

Because Helmand now has 28 ANA combat companies versus only 9 last summer. And the ANA plans to add more combat companies to Helmand in the coming months.

The hold part of the operation is for real this time.

Unfortunately, as you correctly pointed out; many other parts of Afghanistan could use those ANA soldiers. Some of them are arguably more important than Helmand.

Joshua Foust February 10, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Anan,

All fair points, though when the main Afghan Taliban force is headquartered in Quetta, and when its senior leadership are all from Afghanistan and just living in Pakistan for the time, calling them “foreign” is still stretching.

No argument that in the East, there IS a significant foreigner presence… though, at the same time, the majority of the fighters are still recruited locally. (I would describe Haqqani and Gulbuddin as both Afghan forces, not Pakistani). Actual foreign fighters as combat advisers are actually pretty rare, or we’d be killing them off all the time when Taliban die by the 30.

Sailani February 11, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Second that Josh, in fact in Loya Paktia the experience in using foreign fighters amongst the population is so bad that the insurgents have largely restricted their employment to attacks on the KG road and against ANSF/ISAF in sparsely populated areas (Zurmat, etc.).

The locals really hate the foreign fighters by all accounts.

Tintin February 10, 2010 at 10:26 pm

When I briefly visited Lashkar Gah and Nad Ali last summer, just before Khanjar, the UK military people made a couple of interesting points to me about the foreign fighters.

One was that, as Anan says, the true foreign fighters often acted like ETTs, advising and giving backbone to normal formations of local fighters. They even rotate in and out like ETTs do, and sometimes wear body armor and stuff and are quite good. But those foreign fighters are very, very few. (Although enough that on the second patrol I went on in Nad Ali, the Afghan cops, who were listening on the radio to the Taliban observers watching our patrol and reporting back to someone else about it, could identify particular voices as belonging to tactical leaders from Pakistan.)

The other point was that most foreign fighters are not foreign fighters in the “from the Arab world or Central Asia or somewhere far away” sense. When an Afghan tells you about foreign fighters, often he means ones who are from Pakistan, and even more often he simply means ones who are from parts of southern Afghanistan that seem as foreign as Pakistan does. For example, on that patrol I mentioned above, the Afghan police officer listening on the radio eagerly told the American patrol commander that he could hear foreign fighters talking (almost like he knew that was what Americans wanted to hear…), but when pressed, he explained that some of those foreign fighters were from Pakistan, another whose voice he recognized was from Maywand in Kandahar (NOT that far away), and another from Musa Qala. So what an Afghan describes of as a foreign fighter may often be what we think of as a local fighter.

anan February 10, 2010 at 11:04 pm

“another whose voice he recognized was from Maywand in Kandahar (NOT that far away), and another from Musa Qala. So what an Afghan describes of as a foreign fighter may often be what we think of as a local fighter.” Very nicely said. Agree completely. The meaning of “foreign fighter” is a tricky thing.

Steve February 10, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Ehh… I take issue with everything you say (except the part about this not being the last phase… because I agree with you there). Probably the most “wrong thing” you said was the fact that Marjeh isn’t a Taliban strong-hold. While I agree that there are other areas that the Taliban control (even in Helmand), this one happens to be the biggest one that they have control of. It is called a “Taliban haven” because we don’t have troops inside the city. When our troops (including my brother) go on patrol near the city, all hell breaks loose because the Taliban have “runners” posted all over. These runners will usually ride their motorbikes back to positions near Marjeh. They warn the Taliban of the advance of NATO soldiers. Next thing you know, there are dozens of Taliban fighters in the area. Not to mention the bombs that they have planted all around.

And there must be a lot of Opium, considering the fact that troops go on patrol and capture hundreds of pounds of it at a time. And these are just patrols to the extreme outposts of the city. Very small compounds on the outskirts of the city. When the troops go into the city, I’m sure they’ll find a lot of drugs there… if its not an “opium capital,” its damn near close.

If you have someone on the ground in Afghanistan that you talk to, then please let us know in the article. But judging by what you say and your viewpoints on the situation, I don’t think you do.

anan February 10, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Steve, please thank your brother for his service. Looking to learning more from you.

How is embedded partnering with these brand new ANA rifle companies going?

The Marines asked for 16 of them straight out of regional field training. They were given as combat companies without battalion HQs or CS, let alone brigade troops.

I would go easy on Joshua. He knows a hell of a lot about many other parts of Afghanistan. He also has NGO friends on the ground in Helmand. Granted, the NGO folks don’t have granular detailed data across Helmand like the Marines do; but rather have snapshots relevant to their specific sliver of Helmand.

For the record, I agree with you that Marjah really is the largest remaining Taliban stronghold in Helmand. It has been a major problem for many years.

I suspect the Taliban will redeploy from Helmand to Kandahar, Zabul, Ghor, Paktia, Farah, Wardak, Logar, other Pashtun provinces, and Pakistan. I am less concerned than Joshua about the ANA creating another stronghold in Helmand.

I think the Marines, ANA, ANP, Brits, Georgian bn, Danish bn, and Estonians win in Helmand.

Let us hope the victory in Helmand is worth the cost; and backsliding elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Jean Louise Dell'Aquila February 11, 2010 at 12:34 am

Victory in Helmand or else where in Afghanistan is the toot of a horn blown out USA-NATO. Where is the sound ? You have no bay nor cove. By the covenant of Allah upon that land. The bay’ ah is with the leader of Muslims the Mulla Omar. That goes to death !! Your only there for the good time the show in force, the parade. To rain on that parade I too for consultative services known as Shura’a in Islam would hire foreigners. O what a beautiful fellowship are they… the Prophets who teach the truthful the martyrs the righteous who die !!

anan February 11, 2010 at 1:24 am

Don’t worry Jean Louise Dell’Aquila. Have faith. The ANA and Afghans will defeat Mullah Omar.

Let us have compassion for some of Mullah Omar’s followers who have fallen off the true path. The Siraj Haqqanis and Hakimullahs. Shaytan’s torment in Jahannum is no laughing matter.

a February 13, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Instead of arguing this in a tiny bullet point, let’s just point out that the actual fighting men in Helmand see the whole thing going nowhere.

The article you link here doesn’t do a great job of backing this up–apart from this colonel the people quoted in it seem to believe that they’re making slow progress (“We’ve done a very good job building relationships,” etc.). Also who is actually saying that “Marjeh is the last phase to a successful Helmand campaign”?

Joel Hafvenstein February 15, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for the link to the “opium capital” article — I’d missed it, and McClatchy’s consistently wrong-headed coverage of poppy is grist for the project I’m working on right now.

To be fair, Marja is the southern part of Nad Ali district, which (thanks to the massive US-built irrigation network there) has a fair claim to being the *poppy cultivation* capital of Helmand. Nad Ali district is usually top of the UN’s district rankings, except in years like 2003 and 2005, when government action in the irrigated center temporarily displaced cultivation into remote bits of the north like Nowzad.

But as those years show, Helmand doesn’t have a single opium capital, either for cultivation or trafficking. Sangin was the central market for opium trading during my time there (2004-05), but the big NATO campaign there didn’t disrupt the opium trade, it just displaced the physical trading center.

The problems with the article go way beyond a hyperbolic headline. It ignores or gets wrong the crucial trends of the opium economy. E.g. across the country, the Afghan government and its allies play a greater role in “promoting and taxing” the opium trade than insurgents do; the price of opium continues to plummet from its artificial, early 2000s high, with market forces driving the concentration in Helmand and Kandahar; at the same time, central Helmand’s legal cash crops have lost commercial viability in significant part due to insecurity and checkpoint bribery on the road to Kandahar.

These trends suggest that rather than a push to disrupt the rivals to the state narco-mafia, counter-narcotics goals would be much better served by a NATO focus on (a) improving security along the Kandahar-Herat highway, and (b) not doing anything that will improve the profitability of poppy cultivation or trafficking.

Anyway, since any poppy planted in Helmand this year should already be showing little green shoots by now, it’s worth emphasizing that any differences in the 2010 harvest will have nothing to do with what’s going on in Marja now; any possible fruits of the campaign will come in the fall 2010 planting season. I really, really hope the civil-side campaign does more than spring wheat and vegetable seed distributions. Access to seed is not the main constraint on Helmandi farmers switching to legal crops.

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