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.