Extrapolating from Single Instances… Incorrectly

by Joshua Foust on 2/19/2010 · 5 comments

The New York Times’ CJ Chivers has an interesting blog post on what soldiers are digging up as they “clear” the area of Marjeh.

And there, on an inside wall illuminated by their flashlights, they looked up at a sight out of place: a small poster of battle scenes from Iraq, watched over by the approving face of Saddam Hussein.

The thing is, that poster is in Urdu. I asked a friend what it means, since I don’t speak a lick of it, and he said the red text is a prayer from the Koran: nasr allah min fath qarib (by the grace of god, victory is near). The yellow text on the right, above the images of the two bleeding American soldiers, says “once again the epic of sorrow is repeated/once again Hussain’s patience and acquiescence is tested.” My friend speculated it is a Shia devotional poem, which would make the poster rife with irony.

The Hezb-i Islami letter Chivers highlights is also in Urdu, though the image is too small to make out its exact contents precisely.

Chivers raises many questions, some of which he doesn’t answer: why was the intelligence about Marjeh so bad… when actual analysts (I have no idea which ones he consulted for the requisite “analysts say” non-quote) of the region never really believed ISAF’s characterization of the place? People familiar with the area knew it would be “a mix of impoverished local men and hints of outside influence ,” right up to and including the evidence of really low quality weapons and homemade bombs. None of that is a surprise, not even a little bit—only the soldiers, thanks to terrible intelligence, seem a bit taken aback.

And look how Chivers closes his post:

Until this week, no matter the evidence of their poverty and their poor state of supply, the insurgents had managed to hold this territory for years. Several hundred of them had been deemed enough of a threat to require thousands of well-armed (and often heavily armored) Western troops — backed by air support, artillery, rockets and drones – to push them out of their stronghold.

The Western presence is now firmly established. The next phase in the operation – establishing at least the appearance of Afghan government presence and services in an area long out of government reach – will begin. The questions remain: Who exactly are the fighters who continue to resist? To whom do they answer? What else influences them?

Those are the wrong questions (especially if all the written material isn’t in Pashto). I’d be more curious why a few hundred impoverished farmers with machine guns were made the target of a 10,000 man military campaign just because they supported the wrong side of the conflict—did they really pose that much of a strategic threat to the overall war? The line about government is worrisome, too—the apologists for the McChrystal Method have been hyping the weird, unrealistic, and frankly silly idea of “government-in-a-box.” Chivers rightly points out that it will probably be a barely acceptable facade on top of the same rotten core that’s defined “governance” everywhere else (what the hell is “at least the appearance of presence” anyway?).

But beyond that, ultimately, this post is asking Really Big Questions about the war based on… a letter and poster found in a single home a couple of days ago. Does that really warrant such a grandiose discussion of the Marjeh offensive?

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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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Schmedlap February 19, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Government in a box. Awesome. As soon as we package and ship “education in a box” and “rule of law in a box” then we should be able to call it a day.

Craig February 20, 2010 at 2:46 am

I’d be more curious why a few hundred impoverished farmers with machine guns were made the target of a 10,000 man military campaign just because they supported the wrong side of the conflict…

The Mujahideen was armed mostly with World War I era Enfield rifles during the 1980s, so I’m not really clear on the relevance of this question? Are we to determine the level of threat a jihadi organization poses by the sophistication of its military equipment, or how much available funding it has? Is that what you are suggesting?

…did they really pose that much of a strategic threat to the overall war?

Why don’t you answer your own question for us?

AJK February 20, 2010 at 2:13 pm

You’re right: sheer awesome weirdness of a Shi’a themed poster of Saddam written in Urdu found in Marjeh aside, it is a little Friedman-esque to extrapolate from there.

The Chivers article does fit into the whole “foreigners are messing up Afghanistan ruining it for the poor-yet-noble Afghans-as-Caliban.” This whole theory that there’s an evil thread connecting Iraq to Pakistan to every other bit of anti-Americanism. Chivers is better than that, I just don’t get the tack taken.

Gary February 20, 2010 at 2:46 pm

The article betray’s and underlying prejidice against the operation so that you feel he would not find anything right no matter what. And why should it be a surprise that most of the fighters are local given the long term control of the Taliban. Everyone knows the Taliban are as local as not.
The Saddam poster certainly reveals something….

omar February 20, 2010 at 5:38 pm

The poster is from the time of the Iraq war. Such posters were printed in the millions in Pakistan and very widely distributed. My uncle in the village had one in his house and I saw it still hanging there 3 years ago, after my uncle had already died. The reason he had it was probably the same reason someone (probably a Pakistani mujahid or a pakhtoon who lived in Pakistan earlier) in Helmand had it: the poster represented anti-imperialist, pro-Muslim sentiment. The jihadi who had it probably did NOT (or would not) regard “secular” Saddam as a man on the right path, but when Saddam stood against infidels invading a Muslim nation, then his own character is not the issue.
The quranic verse is very famous and very very frequently quoted for obvious reasons: “the help of god is at hand and victory is near”, its hard to imagine a more appropriate quote for any military situation. In roman arabic it would read “nasr u min allah wa fut-hun qareeb”.

The Urdu verse refers to the martyrdom of Hussein, but that does not mean its not used by Sunnis. Outside of the Wahabi Arab world, the martyrdom of Hussein is a standard example of someone standing up for his beliefs against unbelievable odds. It helps that Saddam’s last name was Hussein.

The verse says:
Dohrai jaa rahi hai wohi dastaan e gham
Phir imtihaan Hussein key sabr o raza ka hai

The same tragic tale is being repeated
Once again, Hussein’s patience and obedience to God are to be put to test

In Pakistan, verses like this are used on posters for ALL jihadi groups (the only exception may be hardcore lashkar e Jhangvi types, whose hatred for Shias is so intense, they dont even like these references to Hussein…but that is a minority view)

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