Hearts and Minds in Marja

If the Marja offensive was a performance as much as anything else, then where was the skepticism from the media?

About two months ago, thousands of NATO and Afghan troops rolled into Marja, a town in Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand province, and began what was called the largest operation in the Afghan war’s nearly nine-year history. The offensive was trumpeted as a turning point by the military, which called it essential to Obama’s handling of the war. It also drew the attention of the media in a way that the war hadn’t for months. The press largely went along with the military narrative; a February 21 article in The Washington Post called the operation “the first major test of President Obama’s new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.”

The day after that article was published, however, the Post ran an article by Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock that was surprising in its candor—and in its conclusion. Jaffe and Whitlock wrote that “in purely military terms, sending 11,000 U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat a few hundred Taliban fighters in Marja won’t change much in Afghanistan. The greater significance of the battle is in how it is perceived in the rest of Afghanistan and in America… military officials in Afghanistan hope a large and loud victory in Marja will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield.”

The authors quoted a former U.N. official, who called the town “more like a symbol” than a needed target, and reported that advisers to General Stanley McChrystal had told him the official Kandahar should be the real focus of the military’s attention. The piece followed one that had appeared three days earlier in The New York Times, where reporter Thom Shanker painted the offensive as having “psychological implications” beyond the military strategy. The Post story went further, though, and was more skeptical.

No matter your opinion about the war, it is certainly significant when a mainstream outlet like the Post essentially declares that the biggest military offensive to date in Afghanistan has been pursued mostly for show. To state the obvious, such operations usually result in a significant number of casualities, as the Marja offensive certainly has; it’s fair to assume that when the military sends troops into harm’s way, it’s for a purpose greater than performance. So you’d assume that the Post article, even though it was relatively buried (page A9 of the print edition), would have attracted some level of attention and outrage.

So why has it attracted so little of either? Apart from scattered mentions in the blogosphere, no major organization—including the Post itself—has appeared to regard the “more like a symbol” assertions as a reason to ask tougher questions about why the military swept through Marja. Indeed, even Whitlock and Jaffe’s article itself fails to ask the obvious question: Isn’t there something unsettling about deploying the military, and causing untold hardship for the civilian population, to convince a skeptical public that a war is worth fighting?

Independent reporter Gareth Porter, citing NATO and American sources, also raised questions about whether Marja itself is as big a city as the military has said, concluding that the troops converged on what could more properly be labeled a series of hamlets. Perhaps reporters are not surprised by these gaps between what the military is saying in public and what it is saying in private, but if that is the case, they should say so more often. And if reporters and editors don’t believe those gaps to be there, why run and write the articles in the first place?

Real fighting and dying occurred in front of reporters’ eyes in Marja, and it is understandable that questions over the broader significance of the operation would, to a certain extent, take a backseat to what was happening on the ground. But context is every bit as important as up-close narrative. Now that the fighting is largely over in Marja, and a new government has been installed, it is up to reporters to step back, follow the Post’s brief lead, and provide the context we’ve been missing.

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Jack Mirkinson is a student in the spring Media Criticism course at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.