Spinning Moshtarak?

by Joshua Foust on 2/15/2010 · 12 comments

I get that this blog is written by a British “media ops” officer, but I need help understanding.

Three days earlier we had been crouching against walls and treading with trepidation down a road that carried the threat of hidden bombs with just our body armour for protection.

Today the American general who might one day be hailed as the man who defeated the Taliban strode through the former insurgent capital of Showal dressed only his fatigues.

I had never heard of Showal before, and certainly not when discussing current or former Taliban or insurgent strongholds. So I consulted Lexis-Nexis: not a single news agency in that database has reported about or even mentioned Showal before February 10, 2010, except for one publication that mentioned it in a different context on January 26, 2010. So, is Showal a “former insurgent stronghold” or not? It could be, but no one—not a single person speaking in public—has mentioned it before Operation Moshtarak. What gives?

Lastly, a bit on population-counting. I’ve been adamant for a while that our population estimates of Marjeh—even if you expand it to include all the irrigated countryside that probably isn’t part of Marjeh—doesn’t justify calling it a town, or even a village… much less a “city” of 80,000 people. A friend showed me how dramatic this misrepresentation is: if we look at a satellite image of the area, we can see it is sparsely populated, with a couple of housing compounds here and there.

View Larger Map

Now, just for comparison at a similar scale (they are not exact, as Google Maps still has imprecise maps and images), here is the town of Rugby, North Dakota:

View Larger Map

Again, accepting that there are differences in scale that could muck this up, how do the two seemingly similarly sparsely populated areas compare? Rugby, ND has a population of about 3,000. The ISAF, through the press, is saying Marjeh has almost twenty-seven times as many people in a similarly-sized area. For comparison, here is Suffolk, Virginia, a city of about 78,000 people with the map at a similar scale to the two above:

View Larger Map

We need to stop pretending Marjeh is a population center, a chokepoint, or any of the other ridiculous, inflated adjectives the media and ISAF have assigned it. It may have been the Taliban’s last uncontested area, but its population is not significant to the broader war (especially when, as Atia Abawi reports, the streets are deserted).. Pretending otherwise does everyone a disservice.

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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 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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MILNEWS.ca February 15, 2010 at 8:11 pm

The blog IS maintained by a Brit public affairs officer, but the text (and associated mistakes) can be better attributed to the author of The Telegraph piece from which the text is cut/pasted into the blog post:

Don’t worry – if you don’t like the coverage from one outlet, you can always find another saying something entirely different, right? 😉

Joshua Foust February 16, 2010 at 8:42 am

Wow, I hadn’t even noticed that! That’s especially poor form on his part.

MILNEWS.ca February 16, 2010 at 9:46 am

Maybe, but the blog has been consistent re: sharing MoD/ISAF statements and media stuff.

AJK February 15, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Just a couple of minor quibbles with this:
-First, the Marjeh image is flawed in comparison, because there’s no concrete nor lushness. So where the US towns have a clear contrast, its tough to make out the mud-brick houses from the mud in Marjeh. It makes the place look much more desolate than it appears on a zoom.
-Also, there are a lot more Afghans per household than there are Statesiders per household.

All the same, I agree with the premise, that the population numbers are greatly exaggerated. I’m curious why, though. My guess is that there hasn’t been a decent census in Helmand for a while now. And the more population a Governor can pretend he has, the more access to federal/ISAF resources he has. I think Occam’s Razor prefers an assumption of corruption than an assumption of journalistic smokescreens. Though yeah, some critical look at those numbers would be just swell.

Joshua Foust February 16, 2010 at 8:44 am

That’s a fair point, and the comparison also has issues because it’s really tough to get an identical scale in google maps (i.e. we really shouldn’t use it for anything other than general comparisons or notation).

That being said, even assuming 20 people a compound, you still won’t get anywhere near the 80,000 number bandied about most commonly. I could believe 20-30,000. But not 80.

reader February 15, 2010 at 10:22 pm

A side note: why did they choose a Dari word – Moshtarak – to describe a battle against Taliban in Pashtunland? Maybe this is indicative of how Dari speakers/Tajiks rule the upper echelons of ANA. Afghan Generals I saw being interviewed on BBC were talking unaccented Dari. If that is the case, that explains why this war is still continuing after all these years…Pashtuns must be unhappy about Tajik dominance of Afghan gov and wanting to reverse this historic trend.

Sean Mann February 16, 2010 at 10:22 pm

مشترک هم په پشتو کې لغت دئ.

Moshtarak is also a Pashto word, even if it is shared with Farsi.

BAA February 16, 2010 at 12:31 am

I just want to second what AJK said: A LOT MORE Afghans per household. I spent some time in Khan Neshin in southern Helmand and at first glance there’s few buildings, but then you realize they can hold more than twenty people each and the population starts to add up.

Shah February 16, 2010 at 12:39 am

Moshtarak(joint/combined/common) as in joint command is a commonly used word in Perisan, Dari, Pushtu, urdu,Hindi, punjabi, and several other local languages.

anan February 16, 2010 at 1:02 am

Shah, interesting. I find many common words between Pharsi and Bengali (eastern India.) Hindi too.

Pharsi was the language of the legal system, business, aristocracy, poetry, and philosophy in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan until 1858. Much later than that in Afghanistan.

Michael February 16, 2010 at 1:53 pm

@reader and Shah: Thanks for commenting about that. The word applies to Tajiki Farsi as well (though could also use “yakjo”). However, seemingly only the Tajiks would understand “Operation” or “Operatsiya Mushtarak.” The word “operation” likely makes no sense to Pashto and Dari speakers?

Really, this is all just about news organizations using a word provided by Western public affairs to exoticize and at the same time cultivate a sense of realness/embededness for readers?

In any case, the word is originally Arabic with the root consonants sh,r, and k.

BruceR February 16, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Trouble is, that’s not Marjeh you’re showing. The area that people refer to when they use that name is the entire green belt irrigated area, about 10 miles N-S and about 5 miles E-W. You’ve only got the very northern tip of it in that image. It’s not a city (and I agree anyone who describes it as such has never looked at it), so much as a great big belt of irrigable land, a vestige of a past era of agricultural megaprojects. Nad-e Ali’s the same way.

At 50 square miles, and a minimum of 50 dwellings per square mile (13 acres of land per dwelling, which is generous), and 10 persons a compound, that’d still be 25,000 people. I don’t think the numbers are as far off as you think, although the descriptions are uninformed.

No offense to your friend, but the proper image to use would be http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=31.451983,64.126265&z=11&t=h&hl=en. The great big green quadrilateral in the middle, surrounded by desert? That’s Marjeh.

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