Via Abu Muqawama, I see my favorite romance novelist turned counterinsurgency enthusiast has written an op-ed in The Washington Post about how Afghanistan would have turned out fine if only we could get rid of that pesky Hamid Karzai character.
Karzai manages by panic, with massive corruption and an absence of vision. It’s a tribute to the Afghan people’s energy and U.S.-implemented economic regulations and reforms that Afghanistan’s gross domestic product has more than doubled since the invasion. But Karzai has sought to derail grass-roots efforts at building democracy and to stifle Afghanistan’s nascent civil society, repeatedly siding with fundamentalists against progressives…
Today, most Afghans are living in the best conditions they have ever known, slowly growing their country out of poverty. Most of the north and west is peaceful. Much of the east is, too, except some areas that are very undeveloped and very remote or directly border Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt…
I saw this as an embedded reporter in Ghazni province in November. The young captain in charge of Four Corners, once the “worst neighborhood” in Ghazni, told me that in the spring of 2007 his base had taken fire twice a week, but as of late November it hadn’t been rocketed in 60 days.
One reason may be Ghazni’s new roads. Roads are development magic, and the U.S. Army is building them like crazy.
Mixed into this is Marlowe’s assertion that counterinsurgency is going swimmingly in RC-East—something the Small Wars Journal took exception to in her last ill-informed tirade. Dave Dillege said at the time a comment repeated today by Abu Muqawama: Ms. Marlowe seems to mistake tactical victories with strategic victories.
Rather than a “myth” that Afghanistan is going from bad to worse, it is in fact reality: ignoring the disaster of Musa Qala and the ill-timed British back-dealing, there is the issue of roving motorcycle Taliban gangs seizing district centers, or the failure of allowing the Taliban to occupy Mullah Naqib’s house… to say nothing of the growing concern that NATO will completely fracture over the tensions caused by deployments to Afghanistan (surely a grander victory for al-Qaeda than any dinky IED).
Furthermore, Ms. Marlowe seems to fall for the same trap JIEDDO did: assuming IEDs are a matter of technology, not doctrine. It is not paved roads that prevent the planting of IEDs any more than thicker armor will negate their effects—rather, in the provinces she visited (mostly Ghazni), paved roads came only after a significant increase in investment and security had already reduced IED attacks. She is reversing causation. Thinking further, one can see the obvious: roads help with commerce, but they also ease militant passage. Like most things in a war zone, roads are dual-use, and managing the terms of that use is just as essential as building them in the first place.
Lastly, Ms. Marlowe must be the most super-star reporter ever if she keeps finding all these Afghans who will leap to their feet with the joy of liberation when a white women comes to town asking questions. Because it is not something that shows up in any other reports on the country, or even among the local bloggers currently living in Afghanistan. They see reasons for hope, yes, but they also think their country is going downhill as NATO contemplates throwing them to the wolves. I see many reasons to feel hope for Afghanistan, but they’re not closely related to current policy: regular Afghans on the ground seem to be thriving despite our efforts, not because of them (this report on the role of PRTs in achieving stability is illustrative of the halting and frustrating nature of progress).
Indeed the only thing Marlowe seems to get right is that Afghanistan is a political failure, and not really a military one. It is politics that are crippling NATO and the U.S., just as it is politics that force Karzai into appearing fickle and weak—something actual scholars of Afghanistan, whether specialists in governance or insurgencies, have been saying far more eloquently and rigorously.
All of this is a really long-winded way of asking a very simple question: who the hell keeps paying this woman to write?
Addendum: I’ve briefly reviewed some other commentary made by Ms. Marlowe about Afghanistan, and what she sees as the successes and failures. In the Weekly Standard piece that first brought her to my attention, Ms. Marlowe makes a curious claim:
[P]erhaps the most successful counterinsurgency operation ever mounted, David Galula’s in Algeria, doesn’t build the case for the overweening importance of cultural knowledge. The Algerians pacified thanks to Galula’s insights were French-speaking (some of the leaders of the FLN barely spoke Arabic). The French took back territory from the rebels not because Galula convinced them that he understood their culture, but because he convinced them that their interests were better served by affiliation with France. (A dozen pages of Galula are worth more than anything written by anyone mentioned in this article. His 1963 Pacification in Algeria, reissued by RAND last year, is a witty, snappy, pre-PC read.)
This is a classic example of winning tactical victories yet losing the war. France did not win in Algeria; despite its many successes on the ground (critiqued to devastating effect in the classic The Battle of Algiers), it left a humiliated, former colonialist, and its actions arguably made radical Islamism a permanent fixture of Middle Eastern politics. Algeria was a disaster in almost every sense of the word for France, and the country still has not fully normalized itself as a result.
Ms. Marlowe continues:
I saw classic counterinsurgency doctrine working in Afghanistan during a two week embed in Khost and Laghman provinces this past July. In Khost, our soldiers were doing close to what Galula’s company did in 1956: moving off the big bases, into the countryside, and providing people there with an immediate promise of security and, for the first time, a taste of the rewards of having a government. We are much further along with the strategy of pushing out into rural areas in Khost–a province that shares a 150-mile border with Pakistan’s most lawless areas–than in Laghman, and not surprisingly, the numbers are much better there.
This would seem to argue a point Ms. Marlowe wants to disprove: being aware of needs on the ground—of what the culture and history of the place brings its people to need—is how “classic counterinsurgency” is fought and won. It is the basis behind Kilcullen’s theories—he uses Galula as a foundational text. It is the basis of the surge that has seen tremendous tactical victories in Iraq. And it is the basis of many brand new Army programs, from the Human Terrain System to the renewed attempt at coherent IO, or information operations.
More recently, Ms. Marlowe repeats at length her belief that any blame for Afghanistan’s problems be placed squarely at the feet of both NATO and Hamid Karzai (and, naturally, that insidious liberal media). She has many allies in saying NATO has proven rather feckless, and for noting that political failures in Kabul are the real story of where Afghanistan’s problems lie. But she doesn’t connect the dots properly, choosing instead to look at the few but growing number of local tactical victories in Eastern Afghanistan while ignoring the strategic failure of the rest of the country.
That is not, contra her main argument, the hidden and underreported success of Afghanistan. It is the thin silver lining of the great big enormous cloud that is Afghanistan’s systematically failing institutions.
There is a great deal more to address here, but I don’t mean this to be a systemic criticism of Ms. Marlowe’s writing. She gets some things right, but doesn’t carry them far enough; some things, however, she gets very wrong, and is almost militant about how right she is to the exclusion of all other experts on the country. And some things she doesn’t seem to understand, whether it is the role of cultural operations in a counterinsurgency, or what the World Bank statistics really mean (very little, for the record, since most Afghans have no access to capital or markets, and their statistics haven’t been useful or rigorous since about 2004 or so), or even the main point she is trying to argue.
Which, of course, forces me to repeat the question I asked just above this addendum. I just don’t get it.