The U.S. media told the public for weeks that a big, offensive battle was taking place in Marja, in Afghanistan, a "city of 80,000 people" in Helmand province which was also the logistical hub of the Taliban. The description gave the impression that the U.S. presence in Marja was a major strategic objective, and that the city was more important than other district centers in the province. But the picture the military painted of Marja and duly reported by a biddable news media was one of the most dramatic pieces of misinformation so far in the entire war, aimed at hyping the offensive as a big turning point in the conflict. In truth, Marja is not a city or even a town, but either a few groups of farmers' homes or a large farming area encompassing much of the southern Helmand River Valley. The sparsley populated area is completely rural, with no incorporated city or town. The fiction that Marja was a city of 80,000 got started at a briefing given by officials on February 2 at the U.S. Marine base called Camp Leatherneck. Officials referred to Marja as a populous city. The Associated Press put out an article that same day saying they expected up to 1,000 insurgents were "holed up" in the "southern Afghan town of 80,000 people," a statement that evoked a picture of house-to-house, urban street fighting. ABC News perpetuated the myth the next day, in a story that referred to the "city of Marja" and claiming that the city and its surrounding area were "more heavily populated, urban and dense than other places the Marines so far have been able to clear and hold." The rest of the news media fell in line, giving fake descriptions of a densely populated, urban Marja, often using the terms "city" and "town" interchangeably, without fact-checking the descriptions. On February 22, the Washington Post reported that the decision to launch the big offensive against Marja was intended largely to impress U.S. public opinion with the military's effectiveness in Afghanistan by showing that it could achieve a "large and loud victory." The false idea that Marja was a significantly large city center was an essential part of that message.
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