May 7, 2010

The Art of Marjah

War is often labeled an art, but rarely does this metaphor extend beyond the military realm. War is all too similar to art in that everyone has a different opinion and interpretation. But while art is usually meant to be subjective, in war only one reality exists.

That never stops people from seeing different versions though.

Right now Marjah might as well be two different villages. In one world US says too few Afghans to take control in Marjah. In the Pentagon’s world, Marjah Success Proves New Afghan Strategy.

With Hamid Karzai coming to Washington it’s no surprise that the Pentagon is bombarding Americans with a propaganda campaign, but we still need to know the causes of such a large gap in reality. Are both perspectives accurate in their own ways? Is there a middle ground? Or is one truer than the other?

To enter Marjah is to step into a psychological warzone.

We’ve already reported on McChrystal’s empty “government in a box,” discontent among locals, difficulty in securing the area, and a lack of handover to local government and security officials. The latest distortion stems from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Yesterday Army Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., director of the Joint Staff’s Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell, briefed Senators along with Frank Ruggiero, the State Department’s senior civilian representative to the military’s Regional Command South, and David Samuel Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

“This is the first congressional hearing on our mission in Marjah,” opened Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Committee.

Unfortunately for outsiders there’s no way of knowing for certain what occurred in the proceeding hours. We analyzed the testimony of Nicholson and Ruggiero but they didn’t say much. Both gave short, glowing accounts of Marjah sprinkled with rare dashes of caution.

Nicholson finishes, “Let me conclude by underscoring our assessment that the insurgency is losing momentum and we are heading in the right direction. That said, the outcome is far from determined.”

As for Mr. Ruggiero, “The governance outlook for Marjah is generally positive.”

How truthful are they? Nicholson and Ruggiero constantly played off how poorly Afghanistan in previous years, and US strategy was so geared towards military operations that a civilian counteraction was inevitable. Three times the civilians have landed in Afghanistan, the “largest civilian surge of the war,” but that may still be far short of the requirement.

Relatively is temporarily working in the Pentagon’s favor. To them everything is looking up - even when it may not be.

We felt the overriding sensation that Nicholson and Ruggiero told the Senators what they wanted to hear: more civilians and cooperation than ever before, with increasing security. They advise Marjah was just a test, that everything doesn’t go right the first time, that they’ll get it right next time in Kandahar.

To us the situation simply isn’t as Pentagon officials are painting it.

No shock, but disturbing nonetheless and contrary to US military demi-God David Galula. Calling propaganda a one-sided weapon, Galula warns early on in his classic, Counterinsurgency Warfare, “A counterinsurgent can seldom cover bad or nonexistent policy with propaganda.”

Where one contradiction hides more can be found lying in the brush. For starters, the present source of controversy’s testimony is unavailable on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s website, the only testimony omitted.

In the Pentagon’s reality David Sedney emphasized, “The Marja operations have been exemplary for its level of cooperation. This is the biggest civilian-military operation ever.”

But the AP recounted of the briefing, “The assessment didn't sit well with lawmakers, who have grown tired of committing limited U.S. resources and lives to a war with an uncertain outcome.”

"The number of those local civilians who are trained, capable, willing to go into (Taliban-controlled areas) does not match at all demand," Sedney reportedly told the Senators.

The AP continues, “A week into the battle, Marjah's civilian chief was brought in to raise the Afghan flag over the town center and Marjah residents who had fled began to return. Since then, progress has been slower than U.S. officials had planned. NATO forces still run much of the area.”

This accords to reports in the US media, the ICOS, and US officials themselves. Ruggiero admitted that the area's local police force is corrupted by warlords and drug traffickers and still needs replacing.

Stranger though does reality break down in the Senate and Pentagon. The committee hearing itself appeared to be reactionary to the bad press surrounding Marjah, especially the ICOS report. Senator Kerry references the negativity of the report in his opening statement, finally pushing the three-day-old study into national news.

Nicholson and Ruggiero were also asked directly about the ICOS report and had prepared an answer. Nicholson said the interviews had been conducted early on in the Marjah operation, insisting, "It is a work in progress but treading in the right direction.”

Apparently that’s that.

Though Nicholson is partially correct in saying the interviews were held in March, his response can’t be what the ICOS wanted to hear. They aren’t against the war, which they make clear in their support. The report was meant to assist US forces in altering their strategy before the same mistakes are committed in Kandahar. Blowing it off is a bad sign in itself.

The refugee situation in Marjah provides also provides a relevant contradiction. Not only do Nicholson and Ruggiero spend little time on the refugee crisis deplored by the ICOS, Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, provincial director of the refugee affairs department, claims only 900 out of an estimated 4,000 families have returned.

Over 2,800 families have yet to return out of security fears. That was five days ago.

But we can even add direct evidence of intentional falsity on top of the Pentagon’s propaganda. Kerry supposedly, “lamented the fact that Marjah has become such a hotbed of dangerous activity despite being a fairly insignificant area.”

He then says, “Marjah is not a great Afghan city like Kabul, Herat or Kandahar. Marjah was the last Taliban stronghold in the central Helmand River Valley and it was the poppy production hub of Afghanistan and the world.”

The world...

“Marjah was thus not only one of the last Taliban strongholds in central Helmand but through illicit crop taxation, a productive financial source for insurgents,” added Ruggiero.

Maybe Ruggiero and Nicholson have no regard for the ICOS report, but Kerry certainly wanted to portray an impression of concern. Yet the ICOS is especially critical of the US anti-narcotic policy in Marjah and fully exposes a lie being fed to all those affected by the war.
“In the run-up to Operation Moshtarak, Marjah was dubbed the thriving ‘opium capital’ of Helmand province. It is true that opium stockpiles, packaging workshops and makeshift processing plants were found in this area. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identifies the district of Nad Ali as one of the major opium poppy cultivation centers, but at the same time includes it among twelve districts of Helmand where cultivation is high. As such, in Helmand, which currently cultivates 57% of all poppies in Afghanistan and produces 59% of all its opium, the district of Nad Ali cannot be singled out as the main opium district.”
Many made the same claim, most outside the beltway.

Though the reality of Marjah remains unclear we do have numerous clues. While the operation appears different from past years, many mistakes are still being made and concealed, both with propaganda and outright fiction.

We understand the need for the Pentagon to sell Marjah, but we’re not buying unless Washington's version begins to come in line with the outside world.

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