He has been spotted in Marja (Helmand, Southern Afghanistan). The only problem is: Marja does not exist. Because it is not on Google Earth. And Operation Moshtarak in Helmand is a fake. But let me start from the beginning.
Back in Kabul, as usual the unexpected happened: The rumour of the day did not come from sar-e chowk(1) but from Austria, via email. A journalist is asking me to tell her whether I ever had been to Marja and can ‘confirm that this place really exists, how many inhabitants it has and whether it really is a Taleban stronghold’.
I was flabbergasted but decided to check what’s up.
It turned out that a journalist of Afghan (Helmand) background based in Germany writing on an off-the-mainstream website had raised doubts about Marja being, as described in media reports, ‘a town of 80,000 to 85,000 inhabitants (…), with even a town-like centre (…) in which street- and house-to-house fighting can happen, similar to what happened in Iraqi Falludja in 2004’. Under the subtitle, ‘Marja – media metamorphosis of a hamlet of mud houses into a town of 80,000’, Anahita Girishki raises a couple of very valid questions, but also goes into the trap of journalism made too easy by relying on the internet searches (see her article which is in German here).
Actually, she does not really question Marja’s existence. (This – and the extension into the conspiracy theory that, consequently, the latest military operation in Helmand is a fake – is done in discussions on the internet that comment on her article and apparently are picked up by some irritated journalists.) She just doubts that – as quoted above – Marja is a ‘town’ big enough to be a town or, in other words, that the capture of Marja by US marines is such a big achievement as presented to and reflected by the media: ‘the largest Afghan town under Taleban control’. This might well be the case.
Here are her own words (in my translation from German):
‘I am an Afghan myself and even from Helmand province. As a child and teenager, I travelled around Helmand a lot and got, without exception, to all localities with more than 5,000 inhabitants, i.e. in all villages which, with some courtesy, you could call a town. But Marja I only knew as a miserable, scattered cluster of huts in Nad Ali district. Now, it is of course possible that a small hamlet can grow to a larger town within two decades.’
Indeed, Marja will have grown in population over the past two decades, as all of Afghanistan has. Whether Marja really has 80,000 inhabitants, I am not able to say – as for any other area of the country. We don’t know what Afghanistan’s population is. There has never been a census in Afghanistan, and the one often referred to (from 1979) was based on samples and had never had been finished because of domestic upheaval. We move on very shaky ground when it comes to population figures in Afghanistan. (I liked one comment, though, saying that there must be at least 80,000 people in Marja because Karzai got 80,000 votes there. Quod erat demonstrandum.) But what is clear to everyone who has been to Afghanistan and beyond Kabul: a 80,000-inhabitant Afghan town would definitely not look like a comparable one in Germany, like the famous university town of Tübingen.
Valid questions are, for example, whether Operation ‘Moshtarak’ is blown a bit out of proportion. We all know that the governments of the US and its NATO allies urgently need some success stories to tell because they think that makes them win the next elections. Yes, maybe, Marja is the largest – well – settlement that has been under Taleban control. Marja (and Nad Ali and other neighbouring areas) might be an important area in an economically important region, the irrigated zone along Helmand River (the biggest poppy plantation in the world initially thought to grow cotton and wheat). It might be part of a strategically important region that stretches further along the river to Kandahar and constitutes the Taleban heartland. But will a victory there (whatever this may be) turn around the war?
What will happen when the troops leave again? Yes, I know, they will ‘stay’. But for how long? Till the Afghan local administration – that famous ‘government in a box’ – will function well? How long will this take? Six months? Six years? And how many Afghan troops are there really in Operation ‘Moshtarak’ and what are they exactly doing? And, if they are half or 40 per cent or more, why are mainly Western soldiers reported killed?
Operation ‘Moshtarak’ also poses the question to news agencies who report from or about the region, to journalists embedded in the troops, to newspapers that use their material and to analysts like us whether we sufficiently double-check what is presented to us.
Last but not least, the question is valid what a ‘town’ (or even a village) in Afghanistan is. Some authors have asked whether there actually is something like a ‘village’ in Afghanistan. (In some areas, people refer to smaller units like mosques etc.) Some geographers might argue that there are no towns in Afghanistan. Just look at Kabul’s different quarters, with no functional infrastructure binding them together. Most of them are – sorry – villages where people who migrated there from the same area live together.
What sounds like academic questions is relevant today politically. Where do cities, towns, villages end? Afghanistan’s districts have not been officially delineated. There are ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ districts. (Most governments of the past 30 years have created new districts as sinecure.) Some of the ‘unofficial” districts still function but the people appointed there are not entitled to be paid by the government. The parliament has not done its homework on this, and the international community and its embassies in Kabul seem to have forgotten about it. No census, no delineated district boundaries – how do you want to have voters’ lists? How do you want to have meaningful elections?
By the way, Marja really exists. It was founded in 1957, as one of these ‘model villages’ that emerged in the result of the US and Afghan-funded Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority project. Pashtuns from many different tribes, among them apparently also kuchis (nomads), have been settled there. But indeed, if you only rely on Google and Wikipedia, you might have difficulties in locating Marja. It is also not on district lists of Afghanistan – simply because it is not a district but part of Nad Ali and most of the easily accessible material goes not down to the sub-district level.
But to stop your search there and then raise doubts about its existence is lazy journalism. There are good maps of Afghanistan that show the place. And if you google for ‘provincial profile Helmand’, you get one published by the Afghan investment agency (AISA) which mentions Marja a couple of times. (This took no five minutes, with a slow internet connection in Kabul.) Ms Girishki also refers to Marja-related climate data from the 1950s and an AIMS map, showing the place although spelled slightly differently (Marjeh). This is also not a bad source; AIMS was kind of the UN’s cartographical service but is an independent NGO since 18 months (changed 25 Feb.).
Furthermore, plenty of Afghan journalists have been and are reporting from Marja, before and during the Operation ‘Moshtarak’. Check www.iwpr.net/. Reports about people killed there, Afghan and otherwise, photos of refugees and reports that they are sheltered and supported by relatives, Afghan authorities or international organisations in neighbouring districts also confirm Marja’s existence and that of Operation ‘Moshtarak’.
And finally, I have to confess: It wasn’t Elvis. It was Haji Zaher Aryan, the head of Marja’s new administration (not wuluswal – changed on 25 Feb).
PS/ Michael, in case you read this, I apologise for stealing your running gag.
(1) akhbar-e sar-e chowk: rumour
This article was last updated on 9 Apr 2020