In the Graveyard of Accurate Reporting

by Joshua Foust on 2/14/2010 · 10 comments

While the first day of the Marjeh Offensive was low key and quiet, the second day seems to have been more intense. A children’s treasury of today’s Marjeh news. Highlights are mine.

  • L.A. Times, writing from just outside Marjeh: “For the assault on Marja in southern Afghanistan, Marines are drilled yet again about the inadvertent killing of civilians, which could undermine what they are trying to accomplish… Were they planting explosives? You could never be certain, but the reconnaissance drones overhead thought so. Approval was given to fire a rocket at the men. The rocket strike caused a thunderous explosion. The men dug their holes no more.”
  • New York Times, writing from Kabul: “The top United States commander in Afghanistan confirmed that a rocket went astray during operations in the Marja area of Helmand province, killing 12 civilians, according to a statement issued by the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
  • Same L.A. Times story as above: “The mantra of the Marine leadership is that the push into Marja is a team effort with the Afghan army. Several Afghan soldiers accompanied the Marines from the 1st Battalion, though very much as junior partners… As Marines unloaded equipment needed to build an outpost at Five Points, others manned “fighting holes” — what the Army calls foxholes. Most of the Afghan soldiers sat in their trucks, with the engines running and the heaters at full blast.”
  • The Washington Post, reporting from Camp Leatherneck near Lashkar Gah two days ago: “About 3,500 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers, accompanied by about 1,500 Afghan army infantrymen, are directly involved in the mission, supported by thousands more troops at nearby bases. More than 500 paramilitary police will join the effort Sunday or Monday.”
  • The Christian Science Monitor, reporting from Kabul. “Thousands of US and Afghan troops ground their way towards the center of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah today despite encountering fierce sniper fire and even greater numbers of home-made bombs, booby traps, and minefields than anticipated. Sixty percent of the front-line forces are Afghan troops.
  • The Associated Press, writing from Marjeh: “NATO rockets killed 12 Afghan civilians on Sunday, the second day of an offensive designed to impose Afghan government authority on one of the last big Taliban strongholds in the country’s most violent province… “This is not focused on the Taliban, and it is a strategy not just to clear the area but to hold it and then build right behind it so that there is a civilian component here and there is a local governance,” [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike] Mullen said.
  • The Washington Post, reporting from Marjeh: “The operation to secure the area, which began with an airlift of hundreds of Marines and Afghan soldiers on Saturday and continued with the incursion of additional forces on Sunday, is proceeding more slowly than some U.S. military officials had anticipated because of stiff Taliban resistance and a profusion of roadside bombs.”
  • The Wall Street Journal, reporting from Marjeh: “”We’ve caught the insurgents on the hoof, and they’re completely dislocated,” British Maj. Gen Nick Carter said in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where Marjah is located. The insurgents adopted tactics to try to slow the coalition advance with a guerrilla campaign of hit and run attacks with rifles, machine guns and hidden bombs. “It’s exactly what we expected,” said Lt. Col. Calvin Worth, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine regiment.

Alright, I think you get the idea. That last WSJ article contradicts another story on this list: Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported the Marjeh Offensive will have 3,500 troops, 1,500 Afghans, and thousands of support troops for the offensive; Michael Phillips, on the other hand, says there are 9,500 “U.S. Marines and Afghan and British soldiers” actively experiencing combat, with “a few thousand in reserve.”

In other words, even the reporters there, on the ground, directly interacting with and personally interviewing the military are getting contradictory reports of what’s going on. Chandrasekaran and Phillips, for example, both datelined their stories from Marjeh, and they couldn’t be more different: Chandrasekaran says it’s less than 4,000 troops encountering heavy and unexpected resistance, while Phillips says it’s almost 10,000 troops experiencing light and expected resistance. Making matters worse? They both quote the same Lieutenant Colonel, Calvin Worth. There’s not even the excuse that they’re reporting from different parts of Marjeh.

All of which means that on day two of the offensive we have no idea what’s going on. So many reporters have been given so many contradictory ISAF talking points that nothing makes sense. I think we might wind up being reduced to ex-post facto analysis on this one, despite the tsunami of reporting.

Update: Okay, Monday morning the NY Times reports from Kabul that the Taliban of Marjeh have fled to Pakistan, which, while not surprising, is still deeply at odds with first-person accounts above.

And the weird language of this offensive continues—last night on NBC News, they called Marjeh “the Taliban’s Alamo,” which I presume means they’re all going to die because it’s their last resort (the reporter guy actually said, “if you win Marjeh you win all of Helmand”), and not because it represents a symbolic defeat of an irregular militia at the hands of a powerful Army that rallies everyone and eventually they triumph. It’s like when George W. Bush compared the Iraq War to the American Revolution, only the Iraqis were the British. Bizarre is the only word for it.

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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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myra.macdonald February 14, 2010 at 6:53 pm

I’m still puzzling over this article you pointed out, which suggests that all the confusion is a deliberate smokescreen to what is actually going on:

You mentioned earlier in relation to this article the failure to get civilian agencies ready to do the hold and build part. But I’d be interested to know what you think about the other stuff about Special Ops, or whoever, taking out Taliban commanders.

Joshua Foust February 15, 2010 at 8:51 am

I don’t buy the “deliberate fog of war” business. The military has a sophisticated PR wing that’s really good at getting their story out into the press (it’s getting their story to the local population of non-Americans that’s faulty and ineffective). They have a stable of sympathetic reporters to whom they give preferential treatment on embeds, and they try to obfuscate critical reporters from seeing what’s gong on.

As for the SOF stuff, I mean it’s happening or already happened. We know that. If what Lynch reports is true, and they’re finally working with the regular military to coordinate action, then that alone would be enough to declare Marjeh a victory (that is, if that cooperation carries over to other areas), since it would result in far fewer dead civilians and would reduce the amount of the time the Big Army spends scrambling to clear up their messes.

As for the assassination campaign… I dunno. We’re either doing it or we didn’t have to, and it depends on which newspaper you read. That’s kind of the point of this post. It’s not just that we’re getting different versions of what’s happening, we’re getting opposite versions.

Nathan Carter February 14, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Not that it isn’t entirely likely that reporters are receiving skewed or bad information at times, but it’s just as likely that all of these reporters are just using discreet observations and experiences to try to generlize to the entire operation. All the reporting you cited can be contradictory without being innacurate. It’s entirely possible that all of the reports are an accurate representation of what is going on in different parts of the operation. Single reports can’t by their very nature are inappropriate for reaching general conclusions; they can hardly be faulted for failing to do so.

Joshua Foust February 15, 2010 at 8:53 am

I agree, a lot of this could be explained from the different places argument. Except Chandrasekaran and Phillips, who quote the same people in their dispatches but nevertheless describe opposite things. That is the phenomenon I’m highlighting.

Shannon February 15, 2010 at 8:31 am

Interesting comparison, thank you.

Schmedlap February 15, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Alternatively, it appears that the reporters have given consistent information, but you are misinterpreting it.

“Actively taking part in the fight,” as Phillips wrote, and “actively experiencing combat,” as you paraphrased it, are generally perceived differently. The guy running supplies to forward elements is generally regarded as “actively taking part in the fight” whereas the guy exchanging gunfire is generally regarded as “actively experiencing combat.”

With that in mind, I see no contradiction between the reports from Chandrasekaran and Phillips. One reports 3,500 (US) troops + 1,500 Afghans + thousands of support troops. Given our tooth to tail ratio, that “thousands of support troops” figure is very likely around 4,500 or so. That squares nicely with the other reporter stating 9,500 Coalition troops actively involved (5,000 actively engaged + 4,500 actively involved = 9,500 actively engaged or involved). The latter merely takes it a step further and points out that, in addition to those 9,500, there are a few thousand in reserve. “Reserve” and “support” mean two entirely different things. “Reserve” is a unit not actively involved and awaiting orders. “Support” is actively involved and executing orders. So, again, I see no contradiction or inconsistency here. I also can’t help but think that if their reports appeared to be too similar, then they would be accused of merely parroting the talking points of the PAO.

As someone who worked with PAOs, I find your contention laughable that the “military has a sophisticated PR wing that’s really good at getting their story out into the press.” Actually, my observation would be that we struggle daily to get our story out into the press and usually what gets reported is not what we were shooting for. The degree to which people overestimate the competence and capability of our government never ceases to astound me.

Nick Higgins February 16, 2010 at 2:27 pm

“In the Graveyard of Accurate Reporting”

Maybe it would help if you were all able to spell “Marja” correctly. While many Afghan place names have several different spellings, Marja is one of the few that does not.

I would agree with the comment that if you win Marja you win all of Helmand- Marja is the economic power house of Helmand in that it is the strongest agricultural area. The purpose of this assault is not really to bring the Taliban to battle and defeat them (though that would be a bonus) but to retake the Marja area for the GoA.

The proof of Marjas importance is in the fact that though not a political district such as, say Nad Ali (in which Marja lies) it is important enough to have it’s own Woliswoll (District Governor) and Shura (Council of Elders). I met and worked with them in 2005 and a very friendly and welcoming bunch they were.

Joshua Foust February 16, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Nick, no, no, and no.

Marjeh has about five alternate spellings on official U.S. maps (even AGCHO has alternate spellings in English). If you’re aware of a “definitive” spelling of the place, I’m all ears, but just saying so doesn’t make it so. And if you’re going to snipe spelling, double check “woliswoll”—that’s not standard regardless of transliteration scheme.

Marjeh was not an economic “powerhouse” until very recently. During your time in Helmand in 2005, the “powerhouse” and “insurgent stronghold” was in Sangin. Then it became Musa Qala. Now it’s Marjeh. These labels we assign—whether there is a moderate concentration of Taliban or opium cultivation—are pretty meaningless on any scale beyond a few months.

You’re also the first person to assert Marjeh has its own sub governor and shura. And I mean that: anywhere.

Evidence, please, and for the time I’ll even accept a job title that privileges you to such information no one else has.

Joel Hafvenstein February 18, 2010 at 7:16 am

[Note: all spellings below are just how I’ve transliterated the words for the last six years. I’m not making any claims to special correctness. As long as nobody starts writing about Lashkagar, I’m easy].

Tossing up some of the requested evidence: The walaswal and shura of Marja may never have had the same formal status as other district heads, but when I was working there just before Nick started (hello, Nick), our project’s relationship with the Marja walaswal was identical to our relationship with the formally recognized walaswals. We needed to get their say-so for any project in the southern half of Nad-e-Ali district. The Marjans clearly felt that their sub governor had the same status as the walaswal of Nad-e-Ali — he was in no practical way subordinate to the official district sub governor. So Nick’s right — nowhere else but Marja did I ever run into someone who, while not a walaswal, was treated like one by everyone.

I’d also be comfortable describing the Marja/Nad-e-Ali area as Helmand’s agricultural powerhouse — the biggest concentration of land under reliable irrigation. Does that make it the “economic powerhouse”? Reasonable people may vary — when I was there in 2004, Sangin was the center of opium trading, and I saw a lot more evident wealth there than I did in Marja and Nad-e-Ali.

Like I said in an earlier comment, I’d disagree with Marja (or anywhere) being described as Helmand’s “opium capital,” and I don’t agree with Nick that winning it will give you all of Helmand. But I owe Nick some backup on details.

cain pence February 21, 2010 at 11:24 am

Great work! Your writing is highlighted in Robert Swope’s D3 blog. To read his weekly roundup where you are mentioned, visit Remember, “the first death in battle is the war plan.” So, war policy will always change due to unforseen circumstances…just ask Alexander the Great who was a commanding general in this area long before Petraeus.

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