A (Brief) Dialog With Ann Marlowe

by Joshua Foust on 11/20/2007 · 2 comments

**Updated**

Ann Marlowe, the author of an unflattering look at the Army’s Human Terrain System, has responded to my critique of her essay. Her response, and mine, are below. I have asked her if she’d like to continue the discussion; simply because that was a bad argument does not mean there is no argument. And anyone else please feel free to jump in in the comments.

Ms. Marlowe:

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.

Update: A reader (who shall for the moment remain nameless) sends in the following rejoinder to Ms. Marlowe’s defense of her piece:

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.

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 www.nps.edu/programs/ccs, 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 Registan.net. 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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{ 2 comments }

Ian November 20, 2007 at 2:14 pm

She also wrote a book about opiates (using them, though, not eradicating them). She was also friends with many supermodels at one time.

Also, her latest book has a glowing endorsement from James Frey of Oprah fame.

I say, let this woman speak!

Ted Callahan November 21, 2007 at 11:27 pm

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.

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