Framing Marjeh, or How ISAF Needs to Pick Its Story and Stick to It

by Joshua Foust on 2/12/2010 · 8 comments

I’ll just come out and say it: ISAF’s inability to discuss the Marjeh operation in consistent, understandable terms leaves me serious doubt that they have established realistic, achievable goals in taking the town. In fact, I’m downright worried it will somehow make things in the province worse in the long run. If ISAF contradicts itself at every turn, how can we have any confidence they know what they’re doing? To wit:

  • Depending on who you talk to, ISAF is either telling people to stay in their homes, or they are dropping leaflets on the illiterate population urging them to “please leave the area” because “We don’t want you to be killed/injured.”
  • They are announcing the offensive to give civilians a chance to leave so they don’t get hurt (maybe?), but they also want to go in “big, strong and fast,” because rushing through the town will reduce the likelihood of accidentally killing civilians (who are, remember, either running away or cowering in their homes hoping not to get hit in the cross-fire).
  • Either the town is fleeing in terror as ISAF commanded, or they are not. The reason may be that they are all Taliban sympathizers, or they don’t have anywhere to go, or the approaches to the town have been mined so heavily in anticipation of the operation they’re not willing to risk running.
  • Marjeh is either the crowning glory in a successful year seizing the province of Helman, or (as the men on the ground describe it) a useless waste of time.
  • Governance is at the forefront of planning, or they just found some long-exiled Helmandi and Shanghaied him into taking over the sub-governorship for the district. Because nothing says “effective government” like placing outsiders with no local connections in charge.

That sets the stage for what comes next: the insistence that Marjeh has strategic implications. The DOD cheerleaders at the Kimberly Kagan Institute have released a “backgrounder” on the offensive, which argues, in part, that Marjeh is not just a stronghold but “a major command and control (C2) hub for the insurgency.” The report also argues the town itself is largely supportive (or powerless to oppose) not just the insurgency but “the insurgency’s protection of the poppy trade,” since locals “teamed up with the Taliban” to protect their poppy fields from Afghan-led eradication efforts.

The contradictions continue from there. Marjeh is either a last resort, or a major control hub despite only being a “stronghold” for a year or so. Marjeh is either the center of the Taliban’s force poppy program, or it is an example of locals seeking Taliban protection from predatory Coalition counternarcotics efforts. While above we saw the main thrust of the leaflet campaign was urging civilians to flee the area (or to hunker down in their homes), ISW says the SEALs have been dropping leaflets “warning the [insurgent] fighters to leave the area or be killed.”

Think about it: ISW says the Taliban have established a stable governance system (complete with a working justice system, which the Afghan government cannot do), and that they fund those governance operations by taxing the commerce in the area (which happens to be opium, with the understanding that they would tax any commerce the town has). Our response is to single out and assassinate the leaders responsible for that, and as we saw above our replacement is a team of Western aid officials (who have done such a bang up job everywhere else) and some old ex-pat to replace it. How can we fail!

I’m running out of different ways of saying this: how does any of this make any sense? When viewed as a whole, this entire operation is a confusing, contradictory, counterproductive mess, seemingly destroying the one thing the residents of Helmand had going for them: a semi-functioning government.

I am clearly missing something here, so please, dear readers, help me out. How is this offensive a good idea?

Update: A friend points out something I hadn’t noticed (and I normally read footnotes!)—the author of that ISW paper uses at least half his own footnotes referring to himself. Now, that’s okay in a blog setting or in a book, but it’s to be done in moderation unless it’s a “here’s what we’ve already done” section. In an article, it becomes trickier, unless you are literally the only person to have studied the issue.

When it comes to Helmand, this isn’t the case at all—ISW papers haven’t so far represented original or primary research, they’ve been press and media reviews. So for the ISW writer to be referring to his own review, instead of just spending a few extra words to build the context himself from the same secondary sources, is just bizarre.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from 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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Michael February 12, 2010 at 4:03 pm

This story says there’s some population here, but not a lot. Rather, just one point in a series of many population points that need to be taken. Coalition forces will go in, clear, hold, and follow-up with Afghan forces and a local government that has already been prepared to enter this area. Comments?

Joshua Foust February 12, 2010 at 4:31 pm

“need to be taken.” I see that asserted, but not actually supported. There’s still no evidence they have either the ANSF or the governance structures that can replace what’s there right now.

Pretty much everything Filkins writes these days reads like a press release. It’s really disappointing.

Fletch February 12, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Michael, if that is the strategy it could work over time providing everyone does their job with lots of usa $$$ for the next 50 years. Same thing in Iraq/Yemen, etc, etc, etc. Good luck.

CTuttle February 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Good luck indeed… all the US Senate is willing to shell out for jobs stateside is a mere $15 Bil…! Ironically, isn’t that the same amount we’ve allocated to Pakistan…? 😉

Joshua, Do you have any comments on Gareth Porter’s new piece…?

Dave C February 13, 2010 at 7:12 am

McChrystal’s choice of words in the article seem rather unfortunate – “we’ve got a government in a box”. Do we really? And is that supposed to be a good thing – considering historical US competence with bringing outsiders\exiles in to govern? To a cynic who is questioning the utility of this whole operation, his words also bring to mind a certain SNL skit featuring Justin Timberlake…

Bob February 12, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Confusion isn’t exactly unusual when you have dozens of different commanders, journalists, etc. explaining, commenting, and speculating at the same time. Marja is not under Afghan gov control and will be in a few hours. That’s the main takeaway.

dcrowe February 13, 2010 at 3:10 am

Actually, I’d say the main takeaways are:

1) We started things off right by picking a Dari word for an operation into Pashtun lands.

2) We’re inserting the corrupt ANP and the ANA (which is either incompetent and corrupt or teh best evar, depending on who you ask) into an area, but that’s not the same thing as Marjah being under Afghan gov control.

This is dangerous theater that contains a wealth of contradictions related to the overall mission we’ve been sold in Afghanistan.

Fletch February 14, 2010 at 6:49 pm

well, bob, afg will never be under anyone’s CONTROL especially the gov’t. however, i hope that this lame attempt to give some exit to the usa will be successful to allow that to happen. bests thing is to leave them ALONE. and listen to dcrowe for starters.

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