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 Afghan standards.
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 the war.
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 fighting.
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 apparent contradiction.
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 Leatherneck.
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.