Marjeh’s Civilian Victims

by Joshua Foust on 2/17/2010 · 8 comments

While these numbers are always fuzzy, we can make some broad generalizations about typical Afghan family size. In the cities, where space is expensive and houses often host “immigrants” to the city from the country, families tend to be relatively small: generally ten people or even fewer. In the countryside, however, they are much larger—often 15-20 people per household, which includes an extended family of brothers, cousins, parents, and so on.

So when the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs releases a report indicating about 1,260 families have fled the area of Marjeh during the current offensive, we can estimate that probably represents somewhere between 19,000 and 25,000 displaced persons (the report is not posted to their website yet, so here it is, as a pdf). No matter how many people actually live there, that is a significant percentage of the population. And when we also consider that hundreds of these displaced families, perhaps more, cannot be housed in the IDP camps, we have to come to grips with what that means. While the media’s focus is on the less-than-two dozen people killed during the fighting, vastly more are homeless and facing food stress because of the campaign.

It makes the pundit triumphalism about Marjeh all the more bizarre. The operation might very well be a success, but it is coming at a steep price for the locals we are meant to protect. What bothers me is that smart, experienced, influential people—in this case a three-time Afghanistan veteran of the Special Forces—can still say things like this:

This is one of the few areas of Afghanistan that has its own revenue stream, and that comes from opium, and one of the goals of the government following the offensive is to convince people to give up that revenue stream. I think that’s very difficult.

I mean, there’s nothing especially objectionable about this statement—that is, it isn’t outrageous or anything—but it is revelatory of how a lot of the U.S. foreign policy establishment thinks (Rittgers, the guy who said that, is from the CATO Institute). You cannot divorce the government in Helmand from the opium trade, nor do the influential players in province-level politics have any incentive to reduce the opium industry there (Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, the former governor of Helmand, is only the most prominent example of how government and opium practically mean the same thing there).

Then there’s the difficult bit about governance (which that NPR segment barely addressed). The Guardian has been pretty quippy about McChrystal’s idea of “government in a box.” (“From the army that gave us meals ready to eat, comes a new product. It is called governments ready to govern. All you do is add water.”) But it gets at a fundamentally deeper problem we’ve covered here before: despite all the hifalutin’ talk about it, the military still has a pitiful understanding of what it takes to create, develop, and then support a government.

It’s part of the larger issues within the military of anti-civilian bias—something Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made some halting motions toward reversing (such as his advocacy of increased funding and support for the Department of State), but which remains ascendant within the military community. The foreign policy community in DC, too, is dominated by military-centric thinkers; the number of think tankers and policy wonks who can speak knowledgeably about institution development and capacity building is pitifully small—which makes crafting realistic, achievable plans for civilian development all but impossible.

Which brings us back to the discussion about civilian casualties above. Considering how ISAF was embarrassingly unable to figure out why or how it was going to handle the civilians in Marjeh, right up to their inability to post believable or consistent population estimates, I’m left with the same thought I had two weeks ago, when ISAF signaled they were really serious about Marjeh this time: what’s the end game? Simply throwing an expatriate Helmandi who lived in Germany for 15 years into the mix—which is the current plan—doesn’t actually address the serious shortcomings the military-led governance issues have had.

Meanwhile, the civilians continue to bear the brunt of this offensive: the Coalition is destroying the barely functioning Taliban “shadow” government in the area, and so far their plan for a viable replacement haven’t moved beyond the vaguest of platitudes. Please, I am begging the readers here: if you know of some plan to leave something functioning in ISAF’s wake, something Afghan-led with a realistic chance of lasting once the 10,000 (or whatever) troops have to leave this tiny area, please let me know about it. Because right now it looks like they’re fighting with no end game in mind. And that’s pretty scary.

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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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Charles Cameron February 17, 2010 at 11:39 am

Every time I see McChrystal’s phrase “government in a box” I am reminded of the similar coinage “development-in-a-box” that Enterra Solutions trade-marked and Thomas PM Barnett blogged about here, and which he talks about in his latest book, Great Powers.

I’m wondering whether anybody else has picked up on the resemblance, whether McChrystal’s phrase is an unconscious or conscious echo of Barnett’s, and indeed whether there might be a more than verbal parallelism at work here.

Joshua Foust February 17, 2010 at 11:43 am

I’ve noticed it before. The entire concept of operations in Afghanistan right now is very Barnettian—decapitate the ruling class, send in armed development officers to re-create society in our image, build “connectiveness” and so on. It’s classic Barnett—come up with delirious, pie-in-the-sky ideas, all while denying any responsibility for the aftermath (in his earlier books, Barnett’s solution to Iraq was “more diplomacy”).

The thing is, it’s never worked. Not once. Barnett’s examples, the Balkans, are a shining example of how badly they do work even under ideal conditions (that is, a familiar country with easy logistics and lots of resources). In a place like Afghanistan, it’s ridiculous.

So yeah, I think it’s at least an unconscious echo of Barnett. He is wildly popular in the DOD, and no matter the evidence or arguments, no one at the top is willing to ignore or go against his ideas.

anan February 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Josh, respectfully, it works more often than not.

Look at South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macoa, India, Bangladesh, Iran (1955-1973 Iran was one of the fastest growing economies in the world; unfortunately Iran entered a deep depression in 1973 with per capita real income declining by over a quarter), Germany, Italy. It is also working now in Iraq.

Look at it as “institution building” and “capacity building” led by locals, strategically planned by locals; with substantial foreign collaboration and help.

By this metric, you might add Chile to the mix; since it was the largest recipient of US foreign aid in the Western Hemisphere; and institution building help from abroad. Chile is now a Latin American successful free market country. An “Asian tiger” in Latin America so to speak.

I don’t understand why Afghan institutions can’t be built as long as foreigners pay for and assist them. Afghan institutions were comparable to their Indian counterparts in 1973. [Iran was a much wealthier country in 1973 than it is today; so I couldn’t compare Iran to Afghanistan.]

The real challenge in Afghanistan is that GIRoA annual revenue = $600 million. Long term annual steady state GIRoA expenditure = more than $10,000 million a year.

Why do you say that Afghan institutions are being rebuilt in “our” image? Were Afghan institutions in 1973 “built in our image”? Are Indian and Chinese institutions “built in our image”? I would have mentioned Iran; but their institutions–especially the military–are more similar to America’s than than India’s institutions are. China seems to be trying to copy America more than India is; but they too are not blindly rebuilding their society in America’s image.

My reading of Burnett is to rebuild Afghanistan in China’s and India’s image more than in America’s image. China as Afghan’s largest trading and investment partner will likely influence Afghan reconstruction more than anyone else.

“armed development officers to re-create society in our image” If I could rephrase; it would be FID to build capable local security forces and enable them to provide security that enables all other types of institution building and local capacity enhancement. The US military isn’t bad at training civilian governance institutions. They are more expensive than Asian reconstruction workers are, however. :LOL:

AJK February 17, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Whether or not Dev-in-a-box works definitely depends on how you pick your sample. It seems, though, that its success stories are dependent on two things: creating a wealth gap and a banking elite, and the existence of good infrastructure.

Afghanistan has neither of these. The Dev-in-a-Box in Afghanistan has given the Karzai gov’t and the Roads=security meme. So sure, that may turn into a success story in 20 years or so, but then there’s a whole lot of noise in the machine as to what caused the turn-around.

So I’m as skeptical as Josh, it just seems like a way to open up a country to free markets and a few westernized locals. I just don’t think that way forward applies here.

anan February 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Joshua, the current end game is to tie down a lot of scarce ANA and ANP in Helmand for years. Good for Helmand; not as good for the rest of Afghanistan.

On the civilian capacity side; I would also be interested in what’s planned by Gov. Mangal, the GIRoA, and Helmand PRT.

Josh, why don’t you interview Gov. Mangal and ask him some of these Helmand reconstruction and Helmand civilian institution building questions? Wouldn’t ask him as much about the ANP; would prefer to ask MoI and Helmand’s police chief about that.

Spencer Ackerman February 17, 2010 at 7:15 pm

This isn’t just a good post, it’s an exquisite one. I wish I thought through this UN data like you did. Just excellent work.

Steve C February 18, 2010 at 9:54 am

I agree. This may be your best post on Afghanistan.

DePetris February 17, 2010 at 8:51 pm

From my perspective, the battle in Helmand is simply a microcosm to the entire U.S. mission in Afghanistan over the past nine years; that is, U.S. troops are able to easily clear the area of hostile forces, but then are stuck in the mud when it comes to “holding” and “building” this very same town. Like Mr. Foust said, you cannot simply put anyone in charge as soon as the bullets stop flying. The effectiveness of such an approach is basically the equivalent of putting Sarah Palin in the Oval Office and hoping for the best.

Establishing an effective government takes time. This is even more so in a local environment, where officials have to understand what their constituents want above all else: public projects and jobs.

If steps 2 and 3 of the McChrystal counterinsurgency plan fails (holding and building) in Marjah, I don’t see any way the United States can save face before troops withdraw in July of 2011.

I don’t really have a solution that would answer your question, which is probably why I’m sitting here spouting at the mouth. Let’s consult David Killcullen or the State Department (oooh that’s right, not enough staff).

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