by Gareth Porter / March 9th, 2010
— For weeks, the U.S. public followed the biggest offensive of the
Afghanistan War against what it was told was a “city of 80,000 people”
as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand.
That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in
February that Marja was a major strategic objective, more important
than other district centres in Helmand.
It turns out, however, that the picture of Marja presented by
military officials and obediently reported by major news media is one
of the clearest and most dramatic pieces of misinformation of the
entire war, apparently aimed at hyping the offensive as a historic
turning point in the conflict.
Marja is not a city or even a real town, but either a few clusters
of farmers’ homes or a large agricultural area covering much of the
southern Helmand River Valley.
“It’s not urban at all,” an official of the International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF), who asked not to be identified, admitted to
IPS Sunday. He called Marja a “rural community”.
“It’s a collection of village farms, with typical family compounds,”
said the official, adding that the homes are reasonably prosperous by
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.
That very limited area was the apparent objective of “Operation
Moshtarak”, to which 7,500 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops were committed
amid the most intense publicity given any battle since the beginning of
So how did the fiction that Marja is a city of 80,000 people get started?
The idea was passed on to the news media by the U.S. Marines in
southern Helmand. The earliest references in news stories to Marja as a
city with a large population have a common origin in a briefing given
Feb. 2 by officials at Camp Leatherneck, the U.S. Marine base there.
The Associated Press published an article the same day quoting
“Marine commanders” as saying that they expected 400 to 1,000
insurgents to be “holed up” in the “southern Afghan town of 80,000
people.” That language evoked an image of house to house urban street
The same story said Marja was “the biggest town under Taliban
control” and called it the “linchpin of the militants’ logistical and
opium-smuggling network”. It gave the figure of 125,000 for the
population living in “the town and surrounding villages”. ABC news
followed with a story the next day referring to the “city of Marja” and
claiming that the city and the surrounding area “are more heavily
populated, urban and dense than other places the Marines have so far
been able to clear and hold.”
The rest of the news media fell into line with that image of the
bustling, urbanised Marja in subsequent stories, often using “town” and
“city” interchangeably. Time magazine wrote about the “town of 80,000″
Feb. 9, and the Washington Post did the same Feb. 11.
As “Operation Moshtarak” began, U.S. military spokesmen were
portraying Marja as an urbanised population centre. On Feb. 14, on the
second day of the offensive, Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams said the
Marines were “in the majority of the city at this point.”
He also used language that conjured images of urban fighting, referring to the insurgents holding some “neighbourhoods”.
A few days into the offensive, some reporters began to refer to a
“region”, but only created confusion rather than clearing the matter
up. CNN managed to refer to Marja twice as a “region” and once as “the
city” in the same Feb. 15 article, without any explanation for the
The Associated Press further confused the issue in a Feb. 21 story,
referring to “three markets in town — which covers 80 square miles….”
A “town” with an area of 80 square miles would be bigger than such
U.S. cities as Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Cleveland. But AP
failed to notice that something was seriously wrong with that reference.
Long after other media had stopped characterising Marja as a city, the New York Times was still referring to Marja as “a city of 80,000″, in a Feb. 26 dispatch with a Marja dateline.
The decision to hype up Marja as the objective of “Operation
Moshtarak” by planting the false impression that it is a good-sized
city would not have been made independently by the Marines at Camp
A central task of “information operations” in counterinsurgency wars
is “establishing the COIN [counterinsurgency] narrative”, according to
the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual as revised under Gen. David
Petraeus in 2006.
That task is usually done by “higher headquarters” rather than in the field, as the manual notes.
The COIN manual asserts that news media “directly influence the
attitude of key audiences toward counterinsurgents, their operations
and the opposing insurgency.” The manual refers to “a war of
perceptions…conducted continuously using the news media.”
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of ISAF, was clearly preparing
to wage such a war in advance of the Marja operation. In remarks made
just before the offensive began, McChrystal invoked the language of the
counterinsurgency manual, saying, “This is all a war of perceptions.”
The Washington Post reported Feb. 22 that the decision to
launch the offensive against Marja was intended largely to impress U.S.
public opinion with the effectiveness of the U.S. military in
Afghanistan by showing that it could achieve a “large and loud victory.”
The false impression that Marja was a significant city was an essential part of that message.
Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in
U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest
book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006. Read other articles by Gareth, or visit Gareth’s website.