The Killing Fields of Marja

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Maxx A. Juusola, with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, gives an Afghan man a free radio after inputting his data into a biometrics automated tool set near Marjah, Afghanistan, Feb. 22, 2010. The biometrics tool is used to easily identify Afghans in the local area. (DoD photo by Cpl. Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)

Updated with an addendum (see below)

The HTS (Human Terrain System) and the U. S. Marine operations in Marja had nothing to do with the presence of the Taleban resistance forces, “winning the hearts and minds of Afghans”, “winning the cooperation of Afghan civilians”, or “uprising against the insurgency”.

The representation of Marja as a “rural community” and its population as “the prize” and “center of gravity”, are part of an elaborate deflecting strategy by the U. S. military machine in order to disguise what Operation Moshtarak was really all about. Invoking the irrelevant typologies of “village”, “town”, “city”, “metropolis”, “megalopolis” from an introductory sociology textbook are a layer in this diversionary strategy designed to camouflage what really happened in the desert to the north of the point where Helmand and Arghandab rivers meet, about sixty miles west of Kandahar city. Here is where Marja, Girishk, Lashkar Gah, and Nad-e ‘Ali are located. The area is the site of imposing ruins of ancient Qala-ye Bust and Lashkari Bazar on the once fertile but now deserted eastern banks of the Helmand River. Girishk, Lashkar Gah (called Bust in Afghan government publications during late 1950s to 1967), and Nad-e ‘Ali are named in the media as the staging points of Operation Moshtarak. The desert in which Marja, Girishk, Lashkar Gah, and Nad-e ‘Ali, are located received technical assistance for irrigation from the Germans and the Japanese during the 1930s. The American interest in this area followed these activities. The United States government has the deepest and most intimate historical relationship and familiarity with this sparsely populated area and the nearby Helmand and Arghandab watersheds.  A general photographic and descriptive survey of Afghanistan with concentration on deserts and major river systems was published in 1943 by the U. S. Geological Survey. In fact, in several important respects, these four locations owe their origin and demographic, physical, and political characteristics to the American presence in this area during the late 1940s and 1950s when extensive surveys of the Helmand and Arghandab river systems were conducted by the Idaho based Morrison-Knudsen company and the U. S. Geological Survey.

SPOT THE LIE: The original caption states "Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., talks with HSC 1/6 Marines that are deployed in Marjah, Afghanistan, Apr. 29, 2010. Casey told the Marines he was impressed and later said "I walked DOWNTOWN in a place we couldn't even fly over two months ago." Army photo by D. Myles Cullen (U.S. Deparmen of Defense, released)

I cannot find the place name “Marja” (or Marjah, Marjeh) in writing or local lore before 1956. The Gazetteer of Afghanistan (1914 [Adamec 1980]) compiled by the British colonial government of India during late 19th and early 20th centuries does not include a place, a community, a tribe, or a tribal segment named Marja. Nor is there any reference in this comprehensive historical and ethnographic source to Lashkar Gah, Nad-e ‘Ali, and Girishk. To my knowledge, the place name Marja first appears in print during the construction of dams on the Helmand and Arghandab rivers in early 1950s by the Morrison-Knudsen (Morrison-Knudsen-Afghanistan [MKA]) construction company as part of an irrigation and resettlement project undertaken by the government of Afghanistan for which it created a cabinet level bureaucracy named the “Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority” (HAVA)—modeled after the TVA, Tennessee Valley Authority. An American engineer, Paul Jones (1956), an employee of MKA during 1951-53, mentions “Marja Desert” in his published recollections of his work for MKA. The 1956/57-1961/62 five year plan of the government of Afghanistan refers to Marja as “a new desert project…with 26,700 net irrigable acres” (p. 39). The etymology of Marja is rooted in the word “Maar”, snake in Farsi and Paxto. The parched flat desert in which Marja is located is the area where in earlier centuries a branch of Helmand River had dispersed into smaller streams leaving behind the effect of winding dried beds of water which might have been called Maarjoi (Farsi, snake stream). The Geographic Names Division of the U. S. Army (1971:93) for Afghanistan lists “Marjeh” in explicit preference to “Marja” (probably through a Tehrani phonetic construction) at 31.31N, 64.07E, identical to coordinates listed for Marja in Wikipedia. However, Louis Dupree (1973: 738), with archaeological and ethnographic (1956) experience in the area and a longtime collaborator with the intelligence and military agencies of the United States, locates Marja at 34.20N, 61.59E.

The Afghan government publications “Second Five Year Plan, 1962-1967” and “Third Five Year Plan, 1967-1971”  and the “Survey of Progress” reports for the years 1960 to 1969-1970 repeatedly refer to problems of drainage and extensive salinity in Marja and the surrounding area. American sources repeat and elaborate these problems (United States Operations Mission 1958, 1960, 1961). The most detailed descriptions of the plans and prospects of Marja are described by Aloys Michel (1959). He describes Marja as a 27,000 acre tract occupied by 18 villages, each village housing 40 families (pp. 180-184). If these figures have real human counterparts, we could imagine Marja with a population of 720 families. The average size of these families could reasonably be estimated at five individuals. Thus, theoretically, Marja would have had a population of about 3,600 during 1957—the year of Aloys Michel conducted research in Afghanistan. Michel indicates about the same acreage and population for Nad-e ‘Ali, about ten miles to the southeast of Marja. Lashkar Gah (31.8N, 64.20E), the Afghan government administrative center for HAVA, is located about 7 miles southeast of Nad-e ‘Ali.  Michel (1959: 171) provides a detailed drawing of the locations of Marja and Nad-e ‘Ali in relationship to the Boghra canal which diverted water from the Helmand River.

In 1958, under the sponsorship of the U. S. International Cooperation Agency (ICA), aerial maps of Afghanistan were produced by the Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. The Afghanistan Institute of Cartography was established in that year in the Afghan Defense Ministry. Some of these detailed maps are available in the 6 volume Gazetteer of Afghanistan. Marja is not listed in these maps. A large (4 by 3 ft) wall map of Afghanistan I purchased in 1970 from this institute does not list Marja. Highly detailed maps of Kabul and its surrounding rural communities were available at the institute. A very detailed aerial map of the city of Kandahar and its adjacent rural areas is printed in the 1958 booklet by the United States Operations Mission to Afghanistan (not paginated). In its detail, this map is comparable to the map that is attached to the 27 June 2010 posting by Maximillian Forte. A large selection of these highly detailed maps and drawings for the area that surrounds Marja is provided in the volume about the Shamalan project produced by the  United States Department of the Interior (1967).

Until 1960 Afghanistan was divided into seven provinces (sing. wilayat). The Helmand and Arghandab watersheds were part of the Kandahar Province. By 1969 Afghanistan was reorganized into 28 provinces. Helmand province was created out of the western part of the old Kandahar province. The newly built Lashkar Gah (31.35N, 64.21E [Dupree 1973: 727]) settlement at the confluence of Helmand and Arghandab rivers, near the ruins of historic Qala-ye Bust, became the  administrative center of Helmand province. In 1967 Lashkar Gah “municipality” (in this case a sub-province, hukumati) had a total population of 27,407—4844 “urban” and 22,563 “rural” in 19 villages (Survey of Progress 1968-1969: 39). During 1967 the Helmand Province (including the places named here) had a total population of 302,842 (Government of Afghanistan 1968: 40). According to Samad Salah (2010), a German-educated geologist and former Afghan minister of mines and industries, by 1965 Marja consisted of a cluster of less than a dozen shambled houses occupied by about fifty people in the midst of a totally flat dry desert. Salah had visited Marja as a member of the joint Afghan-German geological survey of Afghanistan during 1965.

The American presence in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces through the Morrison-Knudsen Company and the U. S. Geological Survey during the 1950s and early 1960s created the cultural effect of a colonial “Little America” in Southwest Afghanistan (Hanifi, in press, [see Beardsley 1959 and Jones 1956 for personal accounts of this effect]). But the U.S.-led combined American and Afghan material investment in the Helmand-Arghandab irrigation and resettlement project produced negligible economic developmental results for Afghanistan. The reasons for this failure are discussed in detail by Dupree (1973) and Stevens and Tarzi (1965). Environmental changes including the significant decline in the Helmand River water level also contributed to this wasteful effort (Hanifi 2003). The current American imperial venture in Afghanistan echoes the wastefulness of the Helmand-Arghandab venture. Only now the cost to Afghanistan includes the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent, unarmed, and helpless Afghans by the American military machine fueled by Zionism and the American-Israeli weapons industries.

How did Marja, the ill-planned rural community for 18 villages and 3600 souls in the middle of a vast dry and flat desert during the 1950s and an off the main track ruin housing about 50 residents during the 1960s become the home for 80-85,000 Afghan farmers in a plush agricultural environment hosting the Taleban armed resistance? The answer is simple. The area in which Marja is located has been surveyed, mapped, and explored by the United States decades ago. The purpose of Operation Moshtarak was not to drive out the Taleban; there were no Taleban; the objective of OM was to test new high-tech weapon systems currently being developed in Israel and the United States and being tested on live human beings in a very well known, perhaps the best known area of Afghanistan.Talk of 30,000 heroic American troops, invading the “city”, “village”, or “town” of Marja and circulating digital pictures of plush agricultural oases in the middle of what in reality is a parched and totally dry desert are all part of an elaborate scam by the armed forces of the United States and its allies. Inflating quantity is driven by chunks of venture capital. On a deeper level, this is another symptom of the American malaise of disinclination (perhaps inability) to conceptualize cultural and social reality.

During the 1950s the population of Afghanistan was estimated at about ten million. In early 1970s AID (in the context of a family guidance project) estimated the settled population of Afghanistan at 10,020,099 (AID and Government of Afghanistan 1975, v. 1, p. 15). The nomadic population of the country could be estimated at 3-4 million which will gives us 14 million for the 1970s before the upheavals triggered by the 1978 revolution. During the 1980s the American government and international agencies began using the figure 20 million. The current number being circulated for the population of Afghanistan being by its occupiers is 30 million. I have even seen the figure 35 million. How is this tripling demographic effect in fifty years possible while global population has only doubled during the same period—from 3 billion in the late sixties to the current 6 billion? This kind of exaggerated quantification of the population of Afghanistan becomes even more problematic if we consider some unique depressive demographic dynamics in the country. Five to six million Afghans have migrated to Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere over the last thirty years. Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate and the highest post-partum death rate for women in the world. It is widely stated that about two million Afghans lost their lives in the 1980s during the Russian occupation and the American sponsored assembly-line “jehad”. But large numbers of consumers or clients—real or fictive–generates larger pieces of pieces of capital, larger military and civilian (NGO) presence, more killing machines, expanded employment opportunities for young Americans. In America quantity trumps quality.

Talk of “success”, “failure”, or other outcomes of Operation Moshtarak is an affair in the production and circulation of packages of lies by the American military and the collaborating media. For an HTS social scientist to conclude that she had become “quite impressed by the hospitality of the Afghans” through interviews with Afghans in Helmand is a bizarre way of distilling and digesting a profoundly complex local cultural construct. This kind of scripted simplistic prattle is indeed very thin “C3”—HTS’ “cross-cultural competence”—totally uninformed by the cultural, historical, and political complexities of Afghanistan. The positive and negative results of Operation Moshtarak are available only in the research laboratories of American and Israeli manufacturers of high-tech weapons.

Some questions about the design and public face of Operation Moshtarak (Farsi, combined, together—“amaliyat-e moshtarak”!! This phrase does not produce cultural gravity in a Paxru speaking place where Marja is allegedly located. If the target of OM is a Paxtun community, why not use Paxtu language ingredients like “yaw-zaee ‘amaliyat”? Were there Paxtu speakers in the 4000 Afghan soldiers who accompanied the Americans in this exercise of togetherness? Why were the Afghan interpreters (“terps”) whose voices we could regularly hear in the media coverage of OM all speaking Farsi? Is there a relationship between the Northern Alliance and the “National Army of Afghanistan”? Theoretically, what are the implications of a strictly Farsi-speaking armed force of Afghanistan a large unit of which accompanies foreign invaders in high-tech experiments in a Paxtu-speaking neighborhood of the country? Whichever way these questions are pitched and answered, operation togetherness is another bloody step toward the political fragmentation and eventual destruction of Afghanistan by the dark minded American imperium.

For the United States Afghanistan is the real human version of violent video games on which young Americans spend 5-6 hours daily. Afghanistan has become a human laboratory for testing Pain Rays, Microwave Weapons, and depleted uranium. The number of defective newborns in Afghanistan has skyrocketed. But it would be unrealistic to expect anything else from a state that has a thick file of crimes against humanity. Let us recall the massacre of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Vietnam; the Tuskegee experiment and who knows how many more like it; the massacre of exactly 3,000 innocent Afghans in Dasht-e Lailee in a delusionary exchange with the “3000” casualties of 9/11; the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanemo; the bloody depopulation of Faluja and Haditha; the conversion of the secular state of Iraq into a theocracy; subsidizing and being a partner-in-crime with fascist Israel. Everything touched by this fascist apparatus has turned to dust. Afghanistan is the latest victim of this American Zionist-controlled killing machine.

So, President Obama, General Petraeus, Dr. McFate, the crowd at Ft. Leavenworth, and the wielders of joysticks in the Nevada airbase stop this cowardly, Zionist-fueled bloodbath in Afghanistan. Stop covering it up and lying about it. But no matter how crafty your disguise and cover-ups, some of us can see right through them. History will remember your savagery in Afghanistan and Iraq by discharging saliva symbolically aimed at your face. The people of Afghanistan will never trust you just as you have not and will never trust them. Every Afghan hand you shake is physically and ritually cleaned as soon as you disappear. Underneath all those Afghan smiles and gestures that you confuse with hospitality are oceans of energy screaming: O sarkooza! palida! de ma la korna woowza!! Stop killing unarmed Afghan children and women. Stop polluting our land and culture. Our resistance to your defiling presence is eternal. Get the hell out of our lives! Go home, attend to the decayed cultural and social spaces from sea to shining sea.

SPOT THE LIE: The original caption states, "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen holds a shura with Afghan leaders in Marjah, Afghanistan, March 30, 2010. Mullen addressed concerns they may have after THE SUCCESSFUL REMOVAL OF TALIBAN FORCES FOLLOWING OPERATION MOSHTARAK, which took place in February." (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy/Released)

Addendum (19 July 2010)

Producing Proof for the “Killing Fields of Marja”

What I wrote in the “Killing Fields of Marja” dealt with the dynamics of and the relationships among several cultural and social aspects of Operation Moshtarak. Establishing the validity and internal consistency of these dynamics requires competence in and/or familiarity with the historical, ethnographic, geographic, and demographic realities of the region where this operation allegedly took place. Human culture and cultural constructs are arbitrary. Validity and verifiability, indeed “proof”, are appropriate givens in an anthropological discourse about cultural constructs and social processes. Culture and social relations are not mathematical arrangements. Logical or illogical outcomes are givens in armchair mathematical formulations.

Meaningful participation in discourse about the military and political dynamics of  Operation Moshtarak requires knowledge about the bloody history, structure and operations of the American and Israeli weapons industries and an adequate dose of critical awareness about the thinking and behavior of a desperate, capital-driven, and disintegrating post-industrial imperial apparatus using pre-industrial Afghanistan as a human laboratory for the development of tactics, strategies, and high-tech weapons in fearful anticipation of population centered wars in Afghanistan, Palestine, Watts, East St. Louis, Chicago, and in other locations superpower hubris might take the imperial dragon. Jeremy, Max, and others on this blog have provided us with rich analytical discourse about this aspect of Operation Moshtarak and its HTS component.

Here, somewhat risking accusations of naivety, but counting on Matt’s devotion to the truth and his sense of righteousness, I want to accept his challenge for the production of proof for my claims about Operation Moshtarak in Helmand and Kandahar provinces earlier this year. Not that I “want a *really* great article” but to produce “relevant and factual observations” and to “SHOW how it can be proven (or even reasonably understood) that military operations have been initiated [in Afghanistan] as a vehicle to conduct commercial scientific tests on human beings” and to ethnographically verify that the Helmand and Kandahar provinces of Afghanistan have been regularly used by the U. S. military and  American-Israeli weapons industry as experimental killing fields, I propose a two week ethnographic tour of the culturally constructed spaces bordered by a line stretching from Kandahar city to the Kajaki dam to Girishk to Nad-e ‘Ali to Lashkar Gah to Kandahar city. Participants in the tour will include Matt, General David Petraeus, Dr. Montgomery McFate, their interpreter, and this writer. This writer will be accompanied by three individuals, two observers and a journalist. Matt, Pertaeus, and McFate, as a triad, will exercise the same option.

All eleven members of the group will be unarmed and dressed in culturally proper civilian clothes. Except for the two journalists, members of the tour will carry no electronic devices. The journalists will produce audio-visual recordings of all transactions between members of the tour and the local population.  There will be no military presence or involvement of any kind in this tour by NATO and its subsidiaries in the Kabul government including the “national” Afghan army and police. This will be guaranteed publicly by the commander of the NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan. This writer will be responsible for his own travel expenses and lodging arrangements for the entire group for the duration of the tour. He will also be responsible for local transportation and the security of the group. Members of the tour will meet on September 1, 2010 at Shahre-Safa, about 20 miles east of Kandahar city. The tour will commence on this date and end on September 15, 2010 at Shahr-e Safa. The group will travel throughout the area and will engage in informal civil interaction including, participant observation and open ended interviews, with randomly selected members of the local population in twelve selected human settlements throughout the area indicated above. The subject of these interactions will be the contents of what has been written on this post dealing with military operations in Helmand and Kandahar provinces including the contents of “The Killing Fields of Marja”. During the week after the tour, starting on September 17th, all members of the tour will gather in a public forum and air out what they have learned about Operation Moshtarak during this ethnographic tour.  Three public forums will be held: Kabul (September 17th), London (September 19th), and New York (September 21st).

Matt, please start the ball rolling for your-self, General Pertaeus, Dr. McFate, interpreter, two observers, and a journalist. My team of four is ready. I look forward to meeting members of this ethnographic tour at noon on September 1, 2010 at Shahr-e Safa, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.


Adamec, Ludwig, ed. 1980. Historical and Political Gazetteer of Afghanistan, Volume 5 (Kandahar: South Central Afghanistan). Graz: Akademische Druck. (Original published by India Army, General Staff, 1914).

Afghanistan Ministry of Planning. First Five Year Plan, 1956/57-1961-62. Kabul.

Afghanistan Ministry of Planning. Second Five Year Plan, 1962-1967. Kabul.

Afghanistan Ministry of Planning. Third Five year Plan, 1967-1971. Kabul.

Afghanistan Ministry of Planning. Survey of Progress. Individual reports issued for: 1960; 1961-62; 1962-64; 1964-65; 1965-66; 1966-67; 1967-68; 1968-69; 1969-70. Kabul.

Agency for International Development (AID). 1963. Country Assistance Program, Afghanistan, Part II. Washington, DC: Department of State (Unclassified).

AID and Government of Afghanistan. 1975. National Demographic and Family Guidance Survey of the Settled Population of Afghanistan. 4 volumes. Buffalo: SUNY-Buffalo.

Beardsley, Charles. 1959. The Naked Hills. London: Peter Davies.

Dupree, Louis. 1956. “The Changing Character of South-Central Afghanistan Villages”. Human Organization 14(4): 26-29.

Dupree, Louis. 1973. Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Geographic Names Division, U. S. Army Topographic Command. 1971. Afghanistan: Official Standard Names. Washington, DC.

Government of Afghanistan. 1968. Afghanistan dar 50 sal-e akhir (Farsi, Afghanistan in the last 50 years). Kabul: State Press.

Government of Afghanistan. 1968. Naqsha-ye tabi’I wa siyasi-ye Afghanistan (Farsi, physical and political map of Afghanistan), scale 1: 1500000. Kabul: Cartography Department.

Hanifi, M. Jamil. 2003. Helmand River (geography). Encyclopaedia Iranica 12: 170-71.

Hanifi, M. Jamil. 2010. Kandahar (1900-1973). Encyclopaedia Iranica. (In Press).

Jones, Paul S. 1956. Afghanistan Venture. San Antonion, TX: Naylor Company.

Michel, Aloys Arthur. 1959. The Kabul, Kunduz, and Helmand Valleys and the National Economy of Afghanistan. National Academy of Sciences: Washington, DC. (Sponsored by Office of Naval Research, report no. 5. The document is the 1959 Ph. D. dissertation of the author, Columbia University).United States Operations Mission to Afghanistan. 1960. Project Progress Report. Washington, DC.

NA. 1988. Retrospective Review of US Assistance to Afghanistan: 1950-1979. Washington, DC: USAID (manuscript).

Salah, Abdul Samad, 2010. Personal Communication (June 25).

Stevens, Ira M. and Kamal Tarzi. 1965. Economics of Agricultural Production in Helmand Valley, Afghanistan. Denver: U. S. Bureau Reclamation, Department of the Interior

United States Department of the Interior. 1967. Shamalan Unit: Helmand, Arghandab Valley Development Project, Afghanistan. Washington, DC.

United States Operations Mission. 1958. Afghanistan Builds on an Ancient Civilization. Washington, DC.: Communications Media Branch, USOM/A

United States Operations Mission to Afghanistan. 1960. Project Progress Report. Kabul.

United States Operations Mission to Afghanistan. 1961. Project Progress Report. Kabul.

U. S. Geological Survey, Intelligence Branch. 1943. Afghanistan: Terrain Intelligence (Special Report, Strategic Engineering Study, NO. 49). Unclassified.

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29 thoughts on “The Killing Fields of Marja

  1. Great article Jamil, many thanks for this. I personally benefited a lot from the detailed historical and geographic notes.

    On a lighter side, I don’t know if you ever waste your time, like I do, sometimes watching CNN. I noticed last week that their Pentagon correspondent, a bulldog by the name of Barbara Starr, spoke not of Marja “the town” or “the city” or even “the community”…but finally shifted to calling it “the Marja region.”

    Then, in the same piece, she accidentally said “President Petraeus”.

    I have to wonder now if she is reading this blog :)

  2. There is no administartive district/unit or geographic area in Afghanistan called “the Marja region”. The empire is staffed by congenital delusionsts and confusd dissimulators–a deadly combination often available in pangs of death.

    Could “President Petraeus” be a Freudian slip? I have heard about the second coming of Ike.

  3. Still, the interesting thing is the steady way in which “Marja” the invention is becoming more and more diffuse in their narratives. They don’t even have a grasp of the geographic terrain, and they want to pretend to “map” the “human terrain”–all for the sake of war which costs them over $1 billion per every Al Qaeda member they seek to target. What an insane, absurd, folly.

  4. Wow. I hate to interrupt this cute internal dialogue, but I’m interested to know what qualifies this article as “great”.

    Certainly, as you point out, Max, there is some wonderfully detailed and beneficial historical research here. *I* learned something. But when the article transitions from data and research to analysis and investigation, all sense of reason seems to be lost entirely.

    Well, not entirely. I will concede a valid point may lie in the inflation of population figures. I can think of a number of reasons for this, though not all of them necessarily sinister. Hell, I may even be willing to concede some of the sinister elements implied in this piece. But that is all tangential. This is what really hydrolocks the ol’ brain-pistons:

    “The purpose of Operation Moshtarak was not to drive out the Taleban; there were no Taleban; the objective of OM was to test new high-tech weapon systems currently being developed in Israel and the United States and being tested on live human beings in a very well known, perhaps the best known area of Afghanistan.”

    …er …um …can one of you, please, explain to me how this is a logical conclusion that can be drawn from ANYTHING written in this article? Maybe I’m misreading something, or perhaps this is some kind of inference that sails clear over my head. It may even be the intellectual equivalent to an “inside joke”, meant only for those who “get it”.

    For someone who appeals so bombastically to Orwell’s indictment of individuals willing to accept the word of the “nation” without any sort of reason or analysis, however, I find it more than a little hypocritical to call “great” such an illogically formed conclusion. Please walk me through the steps that bring you there from the premises given here.

  5. Since your irate little “question” is directed at me, I will be the one answering it. If Jamil wishes to enter at any point, that is up to him.

    So aside from the “cute” dialogue (I am more than happy to give you very ugly dialogue, if you prefer, I am somewhat of an expert at it), and the “bombastic” appeals to Orwell (because normally you go down on your knees when you appeal to him)…what really bothers you is that I agree with you that this is a well researched piece from one of the few Afghan anthropologists in the world, but that some “conclusions” are wrongly drawn.

    It seems to me that Jamil is drawing on a wider array of information and analysis than he presented in this short piece. Are you saying that you are unaware of Afghanistan being used as a testing ground for new weaponry? We’re not. Have a look at these articles to see what your wonderfully non-Orwellian democratic state is to doing to human bodies overseas, in your name, and with your hard borrowed dollars.

    Tell me: do you normally cook people with microwaves in your country? (Answer: after the system is perfected in Afghanistan, it’s only a matter of time.)

    I think that after I read these reports, I was much more open to Jamil’s conclusions. Jamil also has access to a wider array of Afghan information sources than I ever could, without speaking any of the languages.

  6. Apologies for the excessive negativity.

    I note the answer you’ve given is essentially confirmation of an intellectual “inside joke”… those who “get it” will have, of course, already familiarized themselves with the unequivocally heinous act of developing forms of force less lethal than, say, a bullet to the face.

    As I suspected, there is no logical reason to conclude that military operations conducted in, on, or around the village/town/city in question were initiated for the purpose of testing war machines on unsuspecting human guinea pigs.

    While I would certainly not dismiss the various social sciences as useless, I think they none-the-less have a regrettable proclivity to stray wildly from logical, rational analysis. This article was great for, if anything, highlighting that fact.

    If you want a *really* great article, then by all means: using logical analysis based on relevant and factual observations, SHOW how it can be proven (or even reasonably understood) that military operations have been initiated as a vehicle to conduct commercial scientific tests on human beings.

    This is not that article. I mean, Hanifi actually opened this piece by proposing that the Army regulation establishing the naming convention for a habitated locale is but a “layer in this diversionary strategy designed to camouflage what really happened” – even though it was published YEARS before Operation Moshtarak.

    And what “really happened”? You chose to quote my use of “conclusion” as though Hanifi were not, in fact, trying to draw “conclusions”. But that’s exactly how he designed his writing – he introduced a proposition (something nefarious has occurred), presented his supporting evidence (America was involved in “Marja” 50 years ago), and then came to an unsupported conclusion (America’s current involvement is nefarious!).

    It’s clear you and he are trying to apply uniform standards of responsibility and humanism to an organization all too ready to avoid just those kinds of efforts. I applaud such motivation, but if you would hold yourselves to logical standards as high as your moral ones, I feel your efforts would be much more meaningfully rewarded.

  7. Thanks for the comment. If Jamil wishes to reply at some point, as I said I will leave it up to him. Speaking for myself alone, I would not be one to argue from a deterministic point of view, that military operations were initiated as a way of testing new weaponry. I think that such testing is part of the package, an added benefit, an expected opportunity. Otherwise, I personally do not argue along the lines that the invasion of Afghanistan was to secure the building of an oil pipeline (an over investment of resources for such a purpose, to say the least), nor do I zero in on any one single factor that motivates and sustains the American project in Afghanistan.

    As for the need to have logically constructed arguments, with one argument following from the other, based on evidence, I agree. It would be hard to do otherwise. This article, short as it is, still contains a lot of detailed historical material, with ample references, about a region that seems to be a mystery to most commentators and even key Western actors in the area, and I find that particularly valuable. My own article on Marjah could only go so far, raising questions, pointing to contradictions, but not providing any kind of an Afghan answer to the problems I posed. Jamil, rightly and justifiably, has very strong views of the Western occupation, and at least he is explicit in indicating what they are and how they shape his writing.

  8. It is indeed hard to conclude with certainty, from the fact described in this article alone, that the objective of “Operation Moshtarak” was to test weapons, but there is a number of elements that make it quite reasonable to think it could be the case ( no one stated this is supposed to be “scientific” testing either) :

    M. Jamil Hanifi showed that the area in question is, for the US, perhaps the best known part of Afghanistan. He showed that this is not the quite populous, Taleban HQ that was constructed by military propaganda. Hence the official account doesn’t hold any water.

    The goals, modus operandi and history of the weapon-making industry are other elements (even though they are not described in this article).

    The history of the inhuman use of “high-tech” weapons by the US military, incuding the use of weapons whose long term consequences are ignored is still another one.
    (One could think, for example, about the use of “agent orange” in Vietnam and its consequences till today. One could see, for example, and the numerous chilling pictures of the victims, till today. Is it really that wrongful to conceive this as testing of weapons on humans ? )

    The fact that there is no other reasonable and credible rationale for this operation available – to my knowledge – is another one. That being said, I, for one, would hypothesize that it could be a PR campaign to foster support for the war, which, in its turn, means more big bucks for the military-industrial complex.

    In the end, I am not sure it would be “greater” to silence one’s ideas about all this on this blog because there is no definitive proof avalaible, or because saying so would not meet the standards of social sciences. At least there is sufficient proof that “Marja” and “Operation Moshtarak” are not what the military tells it is.

    As for “logical standards”, I am wondering by what stretch of the imagination can one say that the idea that “America’s current involvement is nefarious” is an “unsupported conclusion”.

  9. I wanted to add this :

    Further, if one includes techniques of counterinsurgency in the category of high-tech weaponry (what else is it ?), then this article from “The Times of India” quite clearly supports M. Jamil Hanifi’s idea that the objective of “Operation Moshtarak” is to test high-tech weapons :

    For all the fighting that lies ahead over the next several days, no one doubts that the American and Afghan troops swarming into the Taliban redoubt of Marjah will ultimately clear it of insurgents. And that is when the real test will begin.

    For the first time, Nato and Afghan officials have assembled a large team of Afghan administrators and an Afghan governor that will move into Marjah the moment shooting stops. More than 1,900 police are also on standing by. Indeed, Marjah is intended to serve as a prototype for a new type of military operation , based on the counterinsurgency thinking propounded by Gen McChrystal in the prelude to President Barack Obama’s decision of troops surge.

  10. Excellent, Jérémy, thanks very much for these posts. You have done a great job in producing a reasonable series of explanations. I also think that the inferences are logical ones. Perhaps Matt, who is connected to Operation Moshtarak in some way, seeing that he only posts comments on the Marjeh articles, might explain what he thinks is the rational and logical purpose for that Operation, since none of the official explanations have much of a leg to stand on anymore.

  11. What bothers me more now is that Matt would have known of the use of this experimental weaponry, first hand, and still insisted on playing innocent, and calling what we said an “inside joke.” The joke is that he’s the insider. I am not impressed by his sudden imitation of a clam, unless that too is an experimental new technology being developed by military counter-bloggers.

  12. i think this is the last post about this i can submit on the good side of the law of diminishing returns.


    – Hanifi does not here conclusively show that Marja is: 1) the area of Afghanistan best known by the US; 2) not “quite populous”; or 3) not an important hub of Taleban logistics or command and control (“HQ”).

    – the quality of your own “reasonable and credible rationale” indicates to me it would be entirely futile to have a discussion with you about what *would* constitute sufficient reason to undertake the operation in question.

    – poignantly, if we take your reasoning on the matter of “battle-testing” to its logical conclusion, the only morally acceptable way to conduct a war would be with broken limbs and unimproved stones. you’ve essentially classified every historical employment of a new weapon system in a combat environment as an offensive breach of acceptable wartime conduct.

    – my request is not to silence thought. my request is that if you’re going to take the time to WRITE your thoughts, it would behoove everyone involved if you would first construct them logically. particularly if you’re writing for a public forum.

    – wonder all you’d like, it is still true that Hanifi’s article does not logically prove America’s impetus and motivation for conducting military operations in Marja is nefarious. claiming that this article isn’t meant to be social science is weak and, honestly, kind of weaselly. the format alone clearly indicates it was intended to be read as informative, and was intended to lead the reader to certain conclusions from certain premises.


    this is why I flew off the handle in my first post (and failed to uphold the aforementioned standards for publicly submitted writing). i think the four of us in this conversation probably agree on numerous specifics concerning morality, human decency, and American violations of the same. but uncritically accepting every word of those with whom we agree strikes me as painfully counterproductive. hence my appeal to your own appeal to Orwell. just because we all agree that fucked up shit has happend, and fucked up shit is probably happening now, doesn’t mean we’re immune to falling into the traps of Orwellian nationalism. perhaps it is those with whom we agree that require the most critical analysis. if your own position isn’t solid, how can you expect to effect the positions of others?

    And lest I neglect to give credit where credit is due, I think we are certainly in agreement with your last assessment of this article. I learned quite a bit, as I said, and I do certainly appreciate the first-hand account – especially when such accounts seem woefully scarce.

  13. Matt, this will also be my final comment on this.

    Regarding your points, in order:

    – Jamil cannot prove what is NOT the case, logically speaking. In other words, if Marjeh is populous, and a Taleban hub, then it is up to those making such assertions to prove them. Instead, as we saw, those who wish to make such statements could not even settle on whether Marjeh was a town, a city, or a rural area.

    – Your second point is a non-answer. We presented our views on the likely motivations for this offensive, you’ve said we are wrong, and then nothing more.

    – The third point: sounds like a good idea! I would like to see how many nations get invaded and occupied under such conditions. Thankfully, not every state that has developed nuclear weapons has applied your logic, or else we might not be around to type anything right now.

    – Of course the offensive is nefarious, that is a point beyond dispute.

    I agree with much of the rest.

    Thanks for your comments.

  14. Matt,

    You wrote :

    you’ve essentially classified every historical employment of a new weapon system in a combat environment as an offensive breach of acceptable wartime conduct.

    And I wonder “how so ?”. What I did was to classify the battle-testing of “Assault Breacher Vehicles” in the region as testing of high tech weapons. And I proposed the idea that the testing of certain techniques of counterinsurgency could very well be conveived as the testing of high-tech weaponry. I didn’t even allude to anything approaching the idea of “acceptable wartime conduct”, not least because this is, in my opinion, a pure and deceitful oxymoron.

    That said, I do think that spreading the equivalent of six pounds of dioxin filled chemicals per head of vietnamese people on large areas of Vietnam, creating disease and terrible malformations and high birth-defect and cancer rates for several generations is a fucking “breach” of any moral (not legal) norms I can imagine, and I also think that is fucking nefarious.

    And so is the use of depleted uranium weapons by the US military in Irak and Afghanistan.

    As for the need to present “logical” argument. I can only agree, to some extent. I don’t think you take the pain to prove all and every of your propositions.
    The idea that the objective of “Operation Moshtarak” was to test high-tech weapons is not proven in this article. It is asserted as an obvious truth. Of course you can disagree with that, but I don’t think you can say that it was the article’s aim to prove this idea, unless you are ready to insult the author’s intelligence.

    I talked about a few elements that showed the idea might very well be true.

    I also showed that if one agrees to include counterinsurgency techniques in the category of weapons, then the article from “The Times of India” that I quoted supports the idea that the objective of “Operation Moshtarak” was to test weapons.
    And finally, with the last link, I showed that the operation was also used to test new weapons in the stricter sense of the word.

    But, of course, neither of these elements are a definitive proof about what “the impetus and motivation” for this operation, or for the continuation of the occupation in general, are.
    By the way, I don’t think there is one single “impetus”, nor one single “objective” but a complex set of interests and objectives, among which are those of weapons manufacturers.

  15. bah. this is why the returns diminish henceforth: we’re approaching that part of the discussion where logic begins blatantly taking a back seat to emotional righteousness.

    though i’ve only had 27 years to observe the world, i feel rather confident with the assessment that the only persons who ever really resent dispute are those who would rather avoid the results of critical analysis.

    no clamminess involved – i simply think it better if, for the above reason, this conversation ends and i save my effort for future posts. disagreements aside, i’m intrigued by this “post-anthropological” discipline and will continue reading.


  16. Matt, you’re in a war that was fought to take revenge for 9/11, so please don’t mention anything to me about logic or emotional righteousness. This is not your side’s forte (no pun intended).

    You speak of avoiding the results of critical analysis, yes, and in fact you continue to evade offering your justification/explanation for that offensive. If there are diminishing returns here, it’s not my fault.

  17. My sincere apologies Jérémy, I was away from the computer all day, and thus was too slow to put your comment through. Luckily, I found almost a dozen spam messages waiting for approval, and have no time to check for legitimate ones that get wrongly placed in the spam queue. So my apologies to any others who might have tried.

  18. Jeremy

    My intent from the beginning has been to point out that the original article in question clearly indicates it would like the reader to conclude that the true aim of Operation Moshtarak was “to test new high-tech weapon systems currently being developed in Israel and the United States… on live human beings in a very well known… area of Afghanistan,” but it doesn’t quite succeed in that endeavor. That the qualifier “scientific” hadn’t been placed before “test” seems almost negligibly semantic.

    You opened your first comment by confirming that it is reasonable to conclude exactly what I’ve quoted here. I still disagree, and changing the conversation to one about the nature of “testing” or to previous offenses doesn’t do much to make me agree. Your clarification here seems to indicate that all you were trying to do was show that, by your definition of such, various technologies have been tested in Marja.

    That’s fine by me, but it sidesteps my original issue and has an entirely different understanding of what “testing” is and why/how it was conducted, compared to Hanifi’s writing. I think, perhaps on a hard-science blog, a post focusing on the “nature” of “testing” in a war zone and the possible moral ramifications of using private-industry technology in war efforts would be imminently interesting (and useful, necessary, and long overdue). But that’s not what we’re discussing here.

    I certainly appreciate your clarification, it is very reasonable and does indicate I misunderstood your implications. That misunderstanding of implications, however, would seem to be a result of straying from the intent of my original comments.

    I think all of us can agree that, if by nothing more than the unavoidable consequences of employing new technology, there was some “testing” going on in Marja. Was it an attempt to avoid normal scientific protocols and conduct pain ray tests on live humans for the express benefit of private corporations? Well, anything’s possible I suppose, but it’s certainly not been proven here.

  19. My personal experience is one of similar character to OM, but of significantly lesser breadth and mildly different location. I’m certainly not trying to hide the fact that I am in the military, but I am commenting here in a personal capacity and, more importantly, don’t think my comments or analysis rely on my professional experience for validity.

    I haven’t tried to justify or explain OM because that hasn’t been my goal here, and hasn’t been asked of me. If your comment is an oblique attempt to elicit justification or explanation, I’m afraid I can’t oblige. I have no more knowledge of the operation than does anyone with access to the news or internet.

  20. I guess it is my talking about past and present crimes of the US military-industrial complex that Matt calls “emotional righteousness”. Interesting. I guess I shoudn’t have mentionned those crimes even though it is directly relevant to the matter at hand, because one shouldn’t make arguments which have a moral component, and which could make american militarists slightly ill-at-ease.
    Poor little victims of emotional righteousness. They can’t even destroy and pollute a country for decades without having some nasty people being “emotionnally righteous” and talking about their crimes.

    More seriously now, either my in the last comment arguments logically stands, and my mentionning those crimes doesn’t change that, or they don’t, and Matt can explain to us how.

  21. Jérémy, Matt, and others,

    this is just to let you know that the original article above will be updated later today. Jamil has sent me an attachment that directly responds to Matt’s objections.



  22. Jeremy

    I think you missed my response that got posted above, under your post to which I was responding?

    Also, it wasn’t you to whom my emotional righteousness comment was directed.

    I think the formatting here is starting to complicate the discussion?

  23. Indeed Matt, I missed your response above. And yes the formatting has made the discussion complicate. To summarize, I’d say that we agree on the idea that the above article did not prove that the objective of “Operation Moshtarak” was to test new weaponry. But we disagree in that I said I didn’t think it was the article’s aim to prove that, while you seem to think it was. And further, I showed that this idea of OM as a testing ground for new weaponry might very well be true, regardless of the rhetorical and logical structure of the above article.

  24. Just to confirm, the article has now been updated: look at the new section that comes right before “Sources.”

    Sorry Jérémy, Matt, everyone else…I switched to this threading format many months ago, and I realize it is a mistake. Often commentators look for the latest response at the bottom, rather than scrolling up and down. The only problem is this: if I now switch it off, and have all comments appear in a linear fashion, then on many posts numerous comments will appear to be responding to no one in particular.

  25. Jamil:

    That. would. be. AWESOME.

    Someone probably should have taken a similar course of action nine damn years ago. I’m certainly “down”, as they say. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how successful I will be at rounding up the proposed individuals and selling this idea to them. I’m also not sure whether I should be flattered you assess me capable based only on my comments here, or be so amazingly patronized that I stop writing here. I’ll go with the former.

    Even more unfortunate, however, is the particular data collection method you’ve selected to answer your proposed hypothesis. I mean, I have a liberal arts degree, but I’m more than a little sure your experimental design doesn’t quite allow for the collection of the kinds of data you require. To illustrate, let me invert your method:

    After our tour of Afghanistan, we shall conduct a similar tour in the US. The area will be bound by a line drawn from Savannah to Mobile to Knoxville to Charleston to Savannah. Same participants (I’ll “guide” this time), same clothing and equipment stipulations – same random selection of local inhabitants for ethnographic survey and discussion. What kind of data sets do you suppose we’ll be gathering? Hint: I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the American south, but sometimes I think religion has as much a death-grip here as it does in the Afghan south.

    Then we shall take a similar three-stop tour for public speaking engagements. The problem is, we would only be able to speak intelligently about American society within the area we studied. It would be impossible to say anything meaningful about why or how ICE, BATF, DHS, or any other national agency conducts its business within that same area.

    I’m sure you see the parallels here when we go back to the situation as originally proposed. You’re climbing apple trees to find out how oranges grow.

    To verify my understanding (as I am no anthropologist by training) of your proposition, a trip over to wikipedia indicates that the purpose of ethnography is “to describe the nature of those who are studied”. So it seems I’m not very far off the mark. The *ethnographic* study that you propose could never be sufficient to prove “‘…that military operations have been initiated [in Afghanistan] as a vehicle to conduct commercial scientific tests on human beings’ and… that the Helmand and Kandahar provinces of Afghanistan have been regularly used by the U. S. military and American-Israeli weapons industry as experimental killing fields”.

    It *would* be very apt at developing an understanding of the human ramifications of what America has been doing there for the past nine years… but that’s not what you’ve said you’re after.

    Now, I have to be fair here. It has occurred to me, while pondering all this, that developing solid evidence for your claim is neigh impossible. You would have to have access to an insider who had proof and could testify that your claims are accurate, or perhaps have gotten a hold of some of the official planning documents that were produced for the operation in question. Difficult indeed.

    So given that you must work with what you have, how can you prove what you want to prove? As you say, you must appeal to historical, sociological, and geographical context. However, I’m not sure Ockham would agree that you’ve minimized the number of assumptions necessary to come to your conclusion. Anthropology may be a soft science, but I think (like all other scholastic disciplines), it benefits from liberal application of and meticulous adherence to the scientific method.

    You are absolutely right that “culture and social relations are not mathematical arrangements.” This is all the more reason, however, that extra care should be taken to rely on as many primary data sources as possible, and to minimize the number of assumptions necessary to generate conclusions.

    …I still think it’d be an absolutely worthwhile experience, with unquestionably valuable results.

  26. The comment hierarchy isn’t so bad once you get over the learning curve… it’s actually quite logical. I’ve clearly been using it incorrectly heretofore. I think if you can make each subordinate comment field the same width as it’s parent field, it would go a long way towards clarity. It would prevent comments from bunching to the right as a tangential comment thread is pursued.

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