Afghanistan’s Graffiti Wars

Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters
Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters
The artwork left behind by Taliban fighters remains on the walls of a compound now used as a command center for U.S Marines

The artwork of Taliban, American and British forces competes on the walls of a Helmand province compound.

In early November 2010, during an embed with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Reuters combat photographer Finbarr O’Reilly discovered graffiti from both sides of the conflict on a compound wall in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. “The interesting thing to me,” O’Reilly writes, “is that both Taliban and American graffiti is in the same Musa Qala district center where the U.S. Marines, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are all based.”

Musa Qala is an important battleground in the war against the Taliban and the narcotics industry, as the town is one of the main centers for Taliban resistance to NATO and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The Taliban overran the district center and raised their white flag over the compound in February 2007. They held the town until heavy fighting forced their withdrawal on Dec. 10, 2007.  The Taliban graffiti dates from that time. Deployments of both American and British troops later added to the artwork on the walls.

“The striking thing to me is the difference in the quality of the work — almost naive and child-like scribbles from the Taliban and more finely tuned artwork from a skilled artist from the Marines,” O’Reilly observes. While the Taliban images take the form of tableaux, the American drawings are more intricate and graphic, stylistically referencing tattoo art. The work of the British deployment is much less complex. One piece simply counts enemy killed in action in the most basic form of bunched and crossed-through strokes, while another reflects the comforts of home in its depiction of a television playing the long-running soap opera Coronation Street.

The artwork has more recently been augmented with chalk graffiti by the U.S. Female Engagement Team of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, which is now based at Musa Qala. Its pastel artwork incorporates childhood motifs, including flowers, butterflies, rainbows and hearts, along with statements like “Miss You Guys” that reflect the melancholy of being far from home. These Marines have been in Musa Qala since March 2010, when they took over from British troops. Security has improved in the district center, but the surrounding area is still a Taliban stronghold. The older graffiti serves as a reminder of a constant threat.

“The district center and the government they have in place now is ripe for turning the corner,” U.S. Marines Major Justin Ansel says. “We are at a tipping point, but it’s a very fragile tipping point.” The state of flux of the artwork on the compound walls serves as a reflection of the transient, fragile state of the region.

 

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