Marjeh, Afghanistan: X-ray of McChrystal’s Bleeding Ulcer

Updated: 28 June 2010

Operation Urban Inflation

One objective I cannot accomplish here is a comprehensive recap of counterinsurgency doctrine, the development and execution of Operation Moshtarak in Helmand province, Afghanistan, starting in February, and a comprehensive analysis of all of the apparent outcomes. Instead, this a selective series of vignettes. The first vignette: on how knowledge of the terrain is all about making up the terrain as you go along.

Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs, 09 February 2010: “Marines and sailors of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, battled Taliban insurgents, February 9th, 2010, after conducting a successful helicopter-borne assault to seize a key intersection east of the insurgent stronghold city of Marjeh.”

NATO – International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – Feb. 14: Operation Moshtarak Update: “At 10 a.m, a joint press conference was held in the city of Marjah, Helmand province.”

British Forces News – Operations in Afghanistan – Op. MOSHTARAK latest: “…American forces engaged in Operation Moshtarak continue to come up against strong Taliban resistance in the city of Marjah.”

U.S. Department of Defense – Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn, III, Washington, DC, Tuesday, 02 March 2010: “As we have seen in city of Marja, the fighting is fierce.”

U.S. Department of Defense – “Six Days In, Coalition Declares Cautious Progress in Helmand,” DOD Press Ops Audio Outlet, 18 February 2010: “…military officials say the push to clear the Taliban from the town of Marja in southern Helmand Province is going well…”

U.S. Department of Defense – “Nicholson: Marines to Remain in Marja,” DOD Press Ops Audio Outlet, 04 March 2010: “…there are no immediate plans to withdraw the several thousand Marines from the town of Marja even though it has been largely retaken from Taliban control.”

U.S. Department of Defense – “NATO: Complete Control of Marja Still Months Away,” DOD Press Ops Audio Outlet, 26 May 2010: “…it will take several more months before leaders in what until February had been the Taliban controlled town of Marja are fully in charge and free of insurgent intimidation…”

That operation was focused on a “town” — some even called it a “city” of 80,000, sometimes — that has been spelled as Marjah, Marja, and on maps as Marjeh. Look for yourselves…does it look like a city to you? Does it even look like a town? Move the map around, zoom in, zoom out. It appears to be a dusty crossroads, with a few clusters of homes, immediately surrounded by agricultural areas.

Ordinarily it might be the classic Eurocentric methodological error to take the standards of one society, and apply them to another, expecting all things to be identical. But here we are dealing with transposed Eurocentrics, not Afghan speakers, so we can question how their statements live up to their own commonly assumed understandings. Afghanistan has almost the same number of people as Canada, the former around 29 million, the latter 33 million. Not even in our less “developed” far north would most Canadians feel comfortable with calling a rural crossroads a town, much less a city. In fact, part of my family once lived close to a three-way intersection in northern British Columbia. Want to know what the locals called it? “The Three Way.” It is also highly unlikely that Americans, living in a far more populous and developed nation, would ever call a place like this a city either. But these are the forces doing the labeling, and presumably bringing their cultural standards and understandings to bear. The British have less of an excuse for regularly calling Marjeh a city–their vocabulary tends to be wider. They could have called it a village, a hamlet, or a rural district, but not a “city.” So if they say “city” or “town,” we would expect to understand what it is that they imply, especially as they are addressing us, the Western audience, in our language and in our terms.

Town, maybe? City? One would expect  few would see a city here. Except that many did: the Wall Street Journal called the “city of Marjah” a “city of 80,000”; CNN repeats the same phrase and same population number; USA Today, using reporting from the Associated Press, casually speaks of the “city” as well–and the list goes on, Miami Herald, Huffington Post, Seattle Times, ABC News, Associated Press. Indeed, I personally cannot remember any video reporting, or photographs, from Marja/Marjah/Marjeh that ever showed any scene that even remotely resembled images from Afghanistan’s acknowledged cities, whether Jalalabad, Kandahar, or Kabul.

So why the inflation? Perhaps to justify the size of the offensive using 30,000 troops? To inflate the significance of the expected success? Remember that February’s Operation Moshtarak was hailed by the media and the Obama administration as “the most ambitious military campaign” of his administration, a showpiece of General Stanley McChrystal’s much vaunted counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. Within days, Western media were churning out stories of success: the Taliban easily driven out, welcoming locals, everything going better than expected. “Afghanistan has seen a turning point,” British Colonel Richard Kemp wrote for Channel 4 News. As for the now deposed Stanley McChrystal, in the eyes of the Telegraph he was “the American general who might one day be hailed as the man who defeated the Taliban,” and McChrystal himself is quoted as saying that Helmand province had “turned the corner.”

Here is the first of our videos, speaking to this subject of urban terrain make believe:

Where there was some reticence, by some lonely figures in ISAF, in referring to Marjeh as either a city or a town, it was discrete, preferring anonymity, clearly an unsafe position for an ISAF spokesperson to take: “It’s not urban at all,” an official of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who asked not to be identified, admitted to Inter Press Service (IPS)…. He called Marjah a “rural community” (source).


“It’s a collection of village farms, with typical family compounds,” said the official, adding that the homes are reasonably prosperous by Afghan standards. Richard B. Scott, who worked in Marja as an adviser on irrigation for the U.S. Agency for International Development as recently as 2005, agrees that Marja has nothing that could be mistaken as being urban. It is an “agricultural district” with a “scattered series of farmers’ markets,” Scott told IPS in a telephone interview. The ISAF official said the only population numbering tens of thousands associated with Marja is spread across many villages and almost 200 square kilometres, or about 125 square miles. Marja has never even been incorporated, according to the official, but there are now plans to formalise its status as an actual “district” of Helmand Province. The official admitted that the confusion about Marja’s population was facilitated by the fact that the name has been used both for the relatively large agricultural area and for a specific location where farmers have gathered for markets. However, the name Marja “was most closely associated” with the more specific location, where there are also a mosque and a few shops. (source)

Another HTS Success Story: The Ulcer Begins

In a Reuters article by Golnar Motevalli, “U.S. civilians at front in battle for Afghan trust” (08 February 2010), we learn that members of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, with their embedded academics, were deployed to Marjeh for Operation Moshtarak. We have not heard any assessment from them…but only indirectly, from others (below), about just how successful they have been. We are introduced to “Kristin Post, a social scientist working for a Department of Defense ‘Human Terrain Team’.” Post tells the reporter: “We know the population needs to be on our side, so (we ask) what are those gaps that exist that could make the population go the wrong way?” The reporter, speaking of COIN, says “Post and her team leader John Foldberg work with the Marines before, during and after operations to understand Afghans stuck between insurgents and advancing foreign troops.” The leader of Post’s Human Terrain Team, the retired Marine, Foldberg says, “The population is the prize, it’s the centre of gravity.” The locals are welcoming, Post maintains: “Post said she had been quite impressed by the hospitality of the Afghans she had interviewed so far in Helmand.” Indeed, we’ll see the Afghan version of the welcome wagon in a few moments (not that I have ever seen a welcome wagon here in North America).

When a Bleeding Ulcer is in One’s Head

General Stanley McChrystal, in the Telegraph, 15 February 2010:

The American commander of all coalition forces in Afghanistan said the population was clearly grateful for freedom after they had been “effectively occupied while in their own country”.

But had the corner been turned in defeating the insurgency? “I am not prepared to make pronouncement on the country but they have clearly turned the corner here,” Gen McChrystal told me as we continued what was to be an eight minute walk up the road. “If we make it durable then I think it will become contagious.”

“What an insurgency needs is to undercut the government legitimacy and win popular support but what you have had here is an uprising against the insurgency. If I was an insurgent I would have to recalculate the future.”

Amazing Orwellian logic here: Afghans occupied by Afghans, in their own country…”liberated” by whom? No, NATO is not a foreign military occupier, because “we’re with the locals” (see video below). The Taliban and others taking up arms against Western forces are labeled “insurgents” because calling them “the resistance” would imply that McChrystal is the occupier (well, right now, he occupies nothing).

An “uprising against the insurgency”? “Contagious”? Here is Stan McChrystal, quoted in what now appears to be a rare moment of sobriety:

“The biggest military operation of the year – a ferocious offensive that began in February to retake the southern town of Marja – continues to drag on, prompting McChrystal himself to refer to it as a “bleeding ulcer.”

McChrystal was not the only one burning with the high octane enthusiasm ladled out in large mugs of military Kool Aid back in February. ISAF press releases, such as this one, belched out triumphalism to an extent that quickly depleted the room of oxygen. A British major general echoed them:

“My sense is that they will fade away soon,” said Major Gen Nick Carter, the British officer in overall command of Operation Moshtarak. “We have dislocated the enemy and disrupted the heart of their shadow government.” Then with certainty he added: “This is the end of the beginning.”

Who will fade away? Who will be dislocated? The end of the beginning for whom? This, from ABC News Nightline, from this past Friday, 25 June 2010:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Clinical Diagnosis

Here is a scene of the “city” of Marjeh, being won over–by blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival at the inhabitants:

For those needing a quick introduction to McChrystal’s vision of COIN, insurgency, and “protecting the people” (surely deserving of volumes of critique), here is McChrystal himself lecturing:

And finally, here is a credible assessment of the actual results of Operation Moshtarak, more in line with what was shown in the ABC News video above. The International Council on Security and Development, in “Operation Moshtarak: Lessons Learned” (by whom?), reports the following (the words are theirs):

  • Operation Moshtarak has contributed to high levels of anger among local Afghan: 61% of those interviewed feel more negative about NATO forces than before the military offensive. In other words, the objective of winning “hearts and minds” – one of the fundamental tenets of the new counter-insurgency strategy – was not met.
  • Of those interviewed, 95% believe more young Afghans have joined the Taliban in the last year. 78% of the respondents were often or always angry, and 45% of those stated they were angry at the NATO occupation, civilian casualties and night raids.
  • 97% of Afghans interviewed by ICOS said that the operation had led to new flows of internally displaced people. Thousands of displaced Afghans were forced to move to non-existent or overcrowded refugee camps with insufficient food, medical supplies or shelter. Local aid agencies were overwhelmed, and in some areas were not present at all.
  • 59% of those interviewed believed the Taliban will return to Marjah after the Operation. Alarmingly, 67% did not support a strong NATO-ISAF presence in their province and 71% stated they wanted the NATO forces to leave.

…and take your Credence Clearwater Revival with you.

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4 thoughts on “Marjeh, Afghanistan: X-ray of McChrystal’s Bleeding Ulcer

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  2. Matt

    On semantics:

    Suggested naming convention given in FM 3-06:

    Village – 3000 or less
    Town – 3000 to 100,000
    City – 100,000 to 1 million
    Metropolis – 1 million to 10 million
    Megalopolis – over 10 million

    Now, I am using the FM published in OCT 2006, so I suppose it’s possible that *someone* knew the 2009 operation in Marjah was forthcoming, and adjusted the doctrinal terminology accordingly, in order to prepare for inflated troop requests. Seems…likely…?

    Further, the screen shot you chose for the google map of Marjah strikes me as slightly disingenuous. Panning and zooming as you encourage reveals a much larger town than those ruins alone imply. Zooming and panning a little farther shows it to be but one district of the most populated city, and capital, of Helmand – Lashkar Gah. Perhaps theres an equally disingenuous reason “Marjah” was chosen over “Lashkar Gah”?

    Anyway, my objection to your objection over operational terms aside, not altogether off the mark.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      For my part, I don’t see the much larger town myself, and those do not appear to be ruins. They appear to be the mud walled homes and compounds one sees in the same televised news reports from the area, but seen from above. Laskar Gah seems to be well off, about 15 miles straight between the two, at the very least. The choice of initial image was rather arbitrary, close enough for detail, not too close to miss parts of the surroundings. I do however invite readers to manipulate the map as they see fit, and I am sure they will.

      It’s bad enough that there are no universal meanings of village, town, city, and no consensus on how to determine the boundaries of a city (so that it is impossible to compare any two cities in the world, according to some, like Richard S. Wurman)…but now we have the problem of “district.” I am not sure how one decides that something 15 miles away is a district, especially given the clear lack of any sort of “connecting tissue”–a density of roads, and continuity of homes, etc. Perhaps the best idea would be to know what people from that area think, and how they name these features.

      However, since we are dealing with commentators and spokespersons from our own social-cultural background, applying standards with which we should be at least intuitively familiar…I wonder how many of them are really prepared to conceive of a district in those terms, especially when they were calling Marjeh a city (or town) in its own right? This is not the ideal route to go (I can find very little on Marjeh, at hand, that is not in newspaper articles dealing with the recent offensive), but the Wikipedia entry for “Marjah” disconnects it from Laskar Gah (or Lashkar Gah) saying it “is an unincorporated agricultural district in Nad Ali District, Helmand Province.” So it would seem the nearest, more important reference point is Nad Ali.

      The least disingenuous version comes from the unnamed ISAF person: “a rural community”…and that great mass of farmers’ fields should suggest that.

      As for why they did not choose to focus their operations on what would appear, by our standards, to be more of a city, or a large town, is also suggestive. Practically giving up on an outright offensive against Kandahar is even more suggestive…and to give reasons such as “we don’t want another Fallujah or Ramadi,” according to Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, also seems to validate what Iraqis in those areas have been saying all along, and denied all the way by the U.S., about what was done to those cities by occupation forces.

      Of course, it was never going to be an “offensive”…but rather a “military uplift”

      Can the language games get any funnier?

  3. Pingback: The Killing Fields of Marja « ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

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