Is the Human Terrain System Worth Its Spit?

by Joshua Foust on 11/18/2007 · 2 comments


It is a refrain common to regular readers: the U.S. media woefully under-reports on Afghanistan, and as a result people here who don’t spend hours a day trolling through news feeds for fun are left with either a distorted picture of what is going on there or none at all. One of the tricks to this is that it’s damned hard to actually know for sure what is really going on anyway—news is so unreliable it is more like gossip or rumor, and without much of a media presence (few reporters are stationed in the country for more than a few months at a time, and fewer still ever leave Kabul), we’d be foolish to trust the accounts of people who travel in the country for a couple of weeks under heavy military escort and then make sweeping proclamations about how things are really proceeding.

Maybe someone should have told that to Ann Marlowe. Writing a piece for the Weekly Standard—known more for petty sniping on topics about which its writers are clearly unfamiliar than anything else—she complains the Army’s Human Terrain System is little more than “the emperor’s new clothes.”

Drawing on her long history of heroin addiction and Deborah Rodriguez-style romance of a young Afghan man (and writing tepid, irregular book reviews on, Ms. Marlowe proclaims the HTS a failure based on… what, exactly?

I saw classic counterinsurgency doctrine working in Afghanistan during a two week embed in Khost and Laghman provinces this past July…

To my dismay, the Army had double-booked my embed with the [Human Terrain Team in Khowst]. I would have to find another topic to cover. I was assigned instead to the Civil Affairs unit for the 2nd Battalion of the 321st Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and spent five days with them. Although unable to embed with the HTT, I was able to sit down with [Steve] Fondacaro, HTT cofounder Montgomery McFate, a Ph.D. in anthropology, and an Iranian-born female Army officer who did not want her name used.

This meeting, on July 28, was a huge disappointment. I emerged from it with the distinct impression that I was seeing the emperor’s new clothes. What I heard from Civil Affairs cemented my impression. The HTT had given Major Kohn a report on Khost Province and under the heading “economy,” the lead sentence stated that the Khost economy is dominated by poppy production. In reality there is no opium grown in the province. Today, the website that provides “reachback” for the team, and is accessible to the general public, states correctly that Khost does not produce poppy.

There are a couple of things wrong here (how exactly does one see “classic counterinsurgency doctrine” during a two week embed?). For the moment, let us set aside the authority with which she speaks of counterinsurgency theory and doctrine, population surveys, and the actual efficacy of the mission. Just in these short paragraphs, Ms. Marlowe is committing a cardinal sin in the realm of writing: taking a single instance—in this case, a report written in the program’s early days—and generalizing about the entire program as it’s evolved since she spent a few days hearing some civil affairs officer complain about it. It is not the best platform from which to critique programmatic methodology (and is a problem with her writing that emerges more than once).

Ms. Marlowe then spends several hundred words complaining about the lack of language and culture training—the very areas the HTS is meant to cover. So she doesn’t like the program, but then complains the very deficiencies it is meant to correct are not being addressed. Got it. It makes sentences like this: “the Human Terrain Team, at least in Afghanistan, looks like a solution without a problem” seem especially petulant.

What is Ms. Marlowe’s solution?

What’s going right in Khost doesn’t sound like what you read in the papers. And the complaints I did hear from Afghans there, in Nangarhar and in Laghman, weren’t about what the media would have you believe Afghans lament–alleged civilian casualties during coalition operations–but rather were about insufficient development aid or poorly executed USAID projects. In Laghman and Khost I saw smart, highly motivated commanders and soldiers well versed in counterinsurgency theory, approaching their tasks with optimism and determination. With better predeployment training, and an institutional commitment to language learning, I have no doubt they–and the Afghan people–will bring security to Afghanistan.

Huh. While she’s correct that Afghans want reconstruction money and decent infrastructure—that is no surprise to anyone who reads the news in any real depth, and has actually been reported a lot—she is missing the point. Again, generalizing from an extremely limited set of experiences and sources—in this case, two small and relatively peaceful provinces east of Kabul next to Pakistan—is not a good way to prove any point. In fact, saying that the people there don’t complain about civilian casualties during coalition operations is a bit daft, considering the residents there haven’t seen their families killed en masse by perfectly well-targeted bombs striking mud huts (c.f. Obama’s much criticized remarks on our over-reliance on air power). It is similarly a bit difficult to believe that she has anything useful to say about, I don’t know, the motorcycle gangs that occupied Day Kundi, or the renewed Taliban offensive in Kandahar after the barely-reported death of Mullah Naqib.

Let’s talk Naqib briefly. Ms. Marlowe, based on a brief trip in 2002 and her two weeks in 2007, writes of how well counterinsurgency is going in Afghanistan. I wonder how her views stack up against someone who, perhaps, has lived in Kandahar for over six years—say, Sarah Chayes? According to Ms. Chayes:

Except these Taliban are not home-grown insurgents. These Taliban, I have become convinced by evidence gathered over the past six years, were reconstituted into a force for mischief by the military establishment — in other words, it seems to me, the government — of Pakistan, as a proxy fighting force to advance Pakistan’s long-cherished agenda: to control all or part of Afghanistan, directly or indirectly.

The only reason Pakistan’s invasion-by-proxy has morphed into something even vaguely resembling an insurgency is that the Afghan people are at the limit of their endurance with a government that pillages and brutalizes them and lies to them barefaced. Judges demand fortunes for positive verdicts. Customs agents expect kickbacks for every transaction. Police officers shake people down or kidnap them for ransom. Six years of depredations by the government have led to its rejection — and to resentment of the international community that installed it and then refused to supervise it. From those feelings of anger have spread pools of collaboration with the Taliban…

What had in fact transpired, in my view, was a deft, successful psychological operations action by the Taliban. Their attack on Arghandab was designed to communicate, and it did — eloquently. It said that they are here. It said that, despite the likelihood that they would attack after the death of Mullah Naqib, no obstacle was thrown up to oppose them, and they were able to walk into the district. The targeting of the mullah’s house was a deliberate affront. It said: “You see, o men of no honor? You can’t even protect his house. You are nothing now.” The sum of these messages was aimed at the ordinary people who are the prize in any insurgency: Our encroachment is inevitable, the Taliban said. You should align yourselves with the inevitable.

Yep, it sounds like the mission there is going just swimmingly. It is interesting Ms. Marlowe chooses to quibble with Montgomery McFate’s credentials—complaining she’s not familiar with Grima or Lindholm while, apparently, never wondering why that would be needed to found or manage a program staffed by people who most likely would. Going toe-to-toe with an academic on sources, especially as a lay freelancer with, frankly, sketchy or no credentials at all, does take balls—I will give Ms. Marlowe that much. Afterall, she is “as neocon as they come”—surely that gives her some cachet, somewhere.

Ms. Marlowe has no solution, in other words, unless wishing really hard amounts to something. Her subtitle suggests there are things Afghanistan needs more than anthropologists, but she can’t quite bring herself to say what they might be (aside from “classic counterinsurgency doctrine,” which, given the mission of HTS, seems rather discordant with her complaint). Her piece is shoddy, vague, poorly researched, methodologically suspicious, and doesn’t really have any point to it aside from thinly veiled contempt for “academics.” It fits in well at the Standard, in other words: meaning, it is not worth your (or anyone else’s) time.

Update: Ms. Marlowe responds, as so some of our readers.


You are certainly entitled to your opinions, but I should note that I’ve made nine three to five week trips to Afghanistan since 2002, visiting parts of the country as far apart as Nimrouz and Laghman, Maimana and Ghazni, and that I have spent all but two weeks of this time meeting with Afghans, and getting their views on what is and is not working in their country. I’m a dropout from a Harvard PhD program in classical philosophy with an MBA in finance, and have studied nine foreign languages, including Farsi and Arabic, so I’m not entirely uneducated. If I have the time to dip into Afghan and Arab anthropology, I don’t know why someone specializing in this region would not. I am not sure why my being a freelance writer detracts from my credibility.

My response:

Ms. Marlowe –

That’s great, but it doesn’t really change the nature of my complaint. You complain McFate isn’t sufficiently versed in specific regional anthropology, while I contend that has nothing to do with being the manager of a program. Especially since the HTS is working with the very scholars you laud at the NPS, I don’t understand your problem there. The comment about your credentials was meant as a compliment to your complain about McFate’s supposed ignorance—I wonder how many competent managers you’ve met who are genuine experts in their field, versus how many are better at administration and could never stand up to some reporter quizzing them on their knowledge of the literature. Notice I did not question your language credentials—I fully believe that is a desperately needed skill, and I laud you for knowing one of the primary languages in a country you cover—but your complaint there was just petty.

Similarly, in your piece you didn’t use your other trips to the country to serve as a context for the nature of your complaint against HTS—you used a single 2-week trip that in this case did not, from what I gathered from your piece, involve being on the ground and talking to Afghans. You quoted a civil affairs officer who did not like a single report filed in the program’s opening days. What’s more, your other three-to-five week trips would not have been useful, since they did not occur when the HTS was operational.

Your status as a freelancer really does detract from your credibility, especially given the authoritative remarks you made about “classic counterinsurgency doctrine” at work in several areas. You’ll see no complaint from me in urging the U.S. and the DoD to take Afghanistan more seriously—you and I share the desire to see the mission there succeed—but it is precisely the combination of cultural faux-pas and a dire underfunding and undermanning that has unraveled the place to where roving gangs of Taliban infantry on motorbikes can retake district centers. Similarly, the incursion into Arghandab—which, to be fair, may have happened after you had submitted your piece for publication, but was not an isolated incident (I’m thinking of the occupation of Musa Qala)—is ample evidence that “classic counterinsurgency doctrine” is in fact NOT on glorious display in Afghanistan, and that a new approach is needed. That you poo-poo it now is baffling.

I certainly do appreciate your comment, but it doesn’t address the substance of my complaint against your piece: it is suspect, as it draws general conclusions about a program from an extremely limited data set and relies on an anecdote to make a broad argument. That doesn’t fly. And while it might make good copy, it’s not really useful.

A reader (who shall for the moment remain nameless) also sent the following rejoinder:

Grima and Lindholm hardly count as Afghan anthropology, as both studied Pathans (rather than, as they are known in Afghanistan, Pashtuns) in Pakistan’s NWFP (true, Grima’s work also involved some refugees from Afghanistan). Had Ms. Marlowe mentioned Glatzer, Anderson, Dupree, Edwards, Tapper (husband or wife), et al. we might be able to credit her with “dipping into Afghan…anthropology” but to try to snipe at Dr. McFate for unfamiliarity with sources that Ms. Marlowe herself clearly cannot place in context perhaps takes balls but certainly not brains.

So it’s safe to say her piece was not just methodologically unsound, but her initial arguments were poorly sourced.

The Small Wars Journal also negatively responds to Ms. Marlowe’s article, for many of the same reasons.

Further Update: I am sorry to do this, but another reader who has asked to remain anonymous but has some knowledge of the program has further thoughts on Ms. Marlowe’s essay:

Ann Marlowe is mistaken on a number of points: first, just because Khost doesn’t grow poppies doesn’t mean opium is not a significant part of its provincial economy. Khost is an extremely important border province and has significant opiate refining and especially transportation infrastructure, according to the UNODC. Secondly, Mr. Foust is absolutely correct that McFate and Fondacaro are managers more than anthropologists; to ask them to do otherwise would be absurd and a waste of money. With over forty million apparently in the future budget, this is not an insignificant undertaking. Thirdly, Marlowe’s knowledge of the scholarly material available seems extremely superficial, and her arrogance at knowing a few book-titles seems misplaced. Finally, the program appears to be, despite sometimes hyperbolic condemnations from some quarters of the anthropological community, coming along very well, and has even begun a new gazetteer of Afghanistan at, open to the public.

She wasn’t entirely misinformed (her point about linguistic divisions was extremely pertinent), but many of her conclusions were curious to say the least. She goes on to claim “the Human Terrain Team, at least in Afghanistan, looks like a solution without a problem.” This is the most infuriating line of her entire diatribe; the problem is obvious. U.S. and NATO militaries and development workers have to know their Afghan counterparts, and must know what they’re up against. That’s how a successful counterinsurgency is run. It is as simple as that. Who are the Afghans? Who is this tribe, who is that man, what is his history, and will he shoot or smile when he sees us next? This is what the HTS is trying to determine, as quickly as possible. It’s hard work, and often of an extremely timely nature.

Kilcullen is nobody’s fool; he understands counterinsurgency operations and is much farther along on the learning curve than most of today’s military leaders, at home or among the allies. But to question him about specific tribes in specific locations as Marlowe did is absurd. He, and HTS, are building a network of experts to better understand the cultural dimensions of Iraq and Afghanistan, so that the military can better use non-kinetic methods. No one person will or can be the repository of so much information, and that is not his job.

Marlowe seems to approve of the HTS goals, but not of the program itself, meanwhile using facts provided by the program on its website. The program, however, does not serve anthropological debutantes, nor does it serve the wider academic community. The goals are to assist U.S. personnel, military or otherwise, engaged in the “fight for hearts and minds” with a very dangerous and capable enemy. Whether she “gets it” or not is of no concern, and neither are her superficial judgments. Anthropology in a war zone is not for amateurs.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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An Outhouse November 19, 2007 at 1:24 pm

“If you want elitist drivel, this book should do the trick”


Another legacy hire proving that the meritocracy of free market capitalism always produces the most efficient outcome.

Alanna November 19, 2007 at 3:20 pm

That is certainly very different from the usual complaints about the Human Terrain system…

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