Ann Marlowe Thinks Afghanistan Is Doing Awesome

by Joshua Foust on 2/11/2008 · 17 comments

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

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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{ 17 comments }

Ann Marlowe February 11, 2008 at 4:28 pm

I am not a romance novelist! I wrote two memoirs. Have never published any fiction. On a more serious note, why don’t you get out of your armchair and go see for yourself the progress the US military is making in Afghanistan? Have you ever even been to Afghanistan? If not, how are you so amazingly sure you know what is going on? I bet if you did an embed, you would agree with me.

Ann Marlowe February 11, 2008 at 4:34 pm

oops.. hit send button too soon.. meant to add, If you speak with any American or British NCO or officer in Afghanistan, they will emphasize how important paved roads are in preventing IEDS. Iraq is a different story, but in Afghanistan paved roads are at the moment a sufficient deterrent. Or talk with any Afghan governor or district governor; they will PLEAD for paved roads, not only to jump start the economy but to save their fellow countrymen’s lives. There is no reverse causation here – just a carrot and stick idea, where American commanders “give” paved roads to reward cooperation with the Afghan government.

Joshua Foust February 11, 2008 at 4:53 pm

Ms. Marlowe –

I’m expressing skepticism at your claims because your reporting is directly contravening all the other sources I have available for what is going on – including local Afghans writing from Kabul, Kandahar, Bamiyan, and Herat. This says nothing of the many other embedded journalists who report on the failures of Afghanistan. I’m curious; how would you treat a single source that is wildly out of variance with the established body of knowledge on a topic? Would you discount everything else, or be skeptical of the one piece of variance?

I’ve noticed as well that RC-East has calmed down significantly. I’m happy to see it. But there are larger reasons to feel a gnawing pessimism about Afghanistan that have little to do with individual provincial reductions in violence: namely, the complete institutional failure of both the international community and of the Kabul government itself. On this I think you and I agree: the system is right now broken, and has become counterproductive. That is a grander strategic failure that will undermine all the local success—just as the political failures in Baghdad will ultimately undermine the local successes Petraeus has brought about in Iraq.

But the sticking point on IEDs remains the same: paved roads came only after the security situation calmed down enough to permit their construction. Even still, there is a nasty danger of local contractors being executed for working on coalition construction projects. It’s no secret all the governors want roads; many don’t like being in a backwater like Paktika any more than CoF does. But the reduction in IED attacks came before the roads. You can’t say the roads were responsible, even if they do contribute to security.

It’s a good carrot, and a good stick: help us fight the Taliban, and you get a highway. I think that’s great, and it should continue, but it really isn’t a magical IED deterrent, at least in any proven sense.

And I’m sorry about the novelist bit. I thought the Time book was fiction.

Michael Hancock February 11, 2008 at 9:59 pm

She’s no Ted Rall.

Laurence February 12, 2008 at 1:51 pm

Hi Josh,

Good work! Nice to see that Ann Marlowe is reading and responding to what you are saying. I was struck by the anti-Hamid Karzai venom in her Washington Post op-ed, too. Especially since his father was killed by the Taliban. But it fits the current Washington mood of blaming America’s allies for American failings–Musharraf is no good, Karzai is no good, Maliki is no good. Hmmm…but Bush and Gordon Brown are perfect? I don’t think so. Note that in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus change of US tactics has led to less criticsim of the Iraqi government–which might indicate the problem is American, not local, in origin. Despite the media bashing from the likes of Ann Marlowe and other anti-Karzai Americans (Marlowe is not alone, the NY Times had another anti-Karzai piece by an NGO type from IWPR not too long ago, angry that her hotel masseuse was killed).

Anyhow, Marlowe’s sneering at your lack of Afghan experience made me wonder, maybe you can get the Defense Department to give you a tour of Afghanistan? Someone there must read your columns. Have they ever offered a journalist’s junket to you? Or only to friendlies like Ann Marlowe? Let your Registan readers know if Secretary Gates sends you an invitation…

in any case, keep up the good work!

Michael Hancock February 12, 2008 at 6:27 pm

I wouldn’t mind going to Central Asia to see and write about it! But, then again, I’m sure that’s not how they pick people…

Joshua Foust February 12, 2008 at 6:33 pm

It’s kind of funny to see Ms. Marlowe sneer at my lack of Afghanistan experience. She has no idea what my experiences are. But Michael and Laurence, I’m afraid the DoD doesn’t usually fund people who are interested in these places for their own sake—quite understandably, they have their own message to push. It’s not immoral, but it is what it is.

Ahh, but we can all dream, can’t we? :-)

keith hoekman February 12, 2008 at 10:20 pm

As a soldier on the ground in Afghanistan, I would have to agree with Ms. Marlowe on the IED issue. It is not the security along the two major paved roads in our province that deterred all IED placers from laying the IEDs in the non-paved roads. It is the fact that the roads are paved. We had plenty of IEDs and some deaths from IEDs this past year, not one of them was on a paved road. This is despite the fact that the paved roads traverse areas less secure than those where the IEDs were placed. IED placement graphs tell a lot.

Joshua Foust February 12, 2008 at 10:48 pm

Mr. Hoekman –

First of all, thank you for your service. It is deeply appreciated, and I wish you success. But I’m afraid the data we have available doesn’t support the correlation between roads and security. One risk monitoring firm actually claims that good roads have actually made insurgent activity worse:

Published: 04 October 2007

The triangle of provinces of Logar, Ghazni and Wardak remain a fertile location for insurgents and insurgent activity. The likely movement of insurgents through different provinces means the central region remains vulnerable. Generally, districts through which arterial roads run in the provinces of Logar and Ghazni are especially likely to suffer security-related incidents…

The eastern belt of Paktika, Khost, Paktya, Nangarhar, Nuristan (especially the Kamdesh District but also Mandol District) and Kunar provinces (particularly the Korengal Valley north of Asadabad and Pech District in general – but especially the Watapur area) continue to be of concern. Khost, Kunar and Paktika have witnessed ongoing hostility; these areas are considered by some to be as dangerous, if not more so, than the above-mentioned southern areas. Kunar sees regular improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and attacks on security force positions. Nangarhar should be considered volatile for a number of reasons.

Now this doesn’t specifically address the number of IED incidents; unfortunately the data I could find on that was really vague (aside from claims that the Taliban “rule the roads“), with the exception that Ms. Marlowe claims. Indeed, given the risks to PRTs and local construction teams, it wouldn’t make sense for paved roads—which require a lot of lingering time and present workers as easy prey to roving insurgents—to be constructed in a high security risk area. From my understanding of areas of road construction vis-a-vis IED attacks, an area needed to become safe enough for workers to actually complete construction.

I don’t doubt that once roads are paved, IEDs are harder to plant (fewer suitable hiding places), and they’re easier to find. So in that sense I was being unclear in my original phrasing in the post above. I meant to say that there is no positive causation, at least with the unclassified data we have on hand: nothing I know of points to “more concrete = less bombs” as a security strategy. Roads help a great deal, though they carry other risks (I think the dual-use argument is stronger, now that I’ve dug through the data some more), but I still don’t see where the causation lies, especially in districts and provinces that saw heavy road construction only after a reduction in violence.

If you have any data you can point me to that contradicts this, I am all ears — I’m not married to my position.

Lance February 19, 2008 at 10:30 pm

Ann,

I think you should drop the comments about Josh, since I can attest, despite my many disagreements with him over time, that his knowledge is top notch. He is not nearly as Ivory tower as you suggest, though Joshua would be upset at me were I to reveal why that is true.

That being said Josh, I do dispute a few points you have made, and in fact, I am writing a post to address them. Generally on counterinsurgency and its political aspects, and specifically on Algeria, where I think you miss the most important lessons of that conflict. This is a subject where I have some knowledge, and a rather idiosyncratic, but relevant background.

The post was not originally addressed toward you, but you know how I love a foil! Tag, you are it. It’ll go up in the morning.

Ann Marlowe May 12, 2008 at 9:23 am

Having gone back to your blog, Josh, I can’t believe you and your readers aren’t familiar with the process of embeds with the US military. There are no junkets and I have never been offered one. Anyone who writes for a news outlet, left or right, and can show a letter from an editor, can get a 1-3 week embed in Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s it – period end of report. For the record, I’ve been to Afghanistan for 10 approximately month long trips, all self-financed (I make my living in business, not from writing). I did embeds as part of three of these trips, the most recent. But anyone can get a visa for Afghanistan and just go see for him or herself, as I did. One can travel around the vast majority of the provinces safely by oneself. There is no excuse for armchair “experts”. Who would take seriously an “expert” on China who had never been there?

Ann Marlowe May 13, 2008 at 11:51 pm

Gentlemen, I can’t believe you are unaware of the process of being an embedded journalist (or photojournalist as the case may be). All you need to do is apply with a letter from some recognized print or digital publication. It is free. There are lefties embedded too. Some of them emerge as huge admirers of the Army. But to set the record straight, the US military does not offer junkets or pay to any journalists, unless you consider sharing a room in a fort in the middle of provincial Afghanistan with 8 paratroopers a junket. All of my ten month long trips to Afghanistan have been self-financed (I have had my own business for 18 years). About 8 1/2 months of that time has been purely civilian travel and reporting, again self-financed.

Joshua Foust May 14, 2008 at 11:03 am

Ann, I never accused you of being paid by the military for your efforts. I accused you of uncritically repeating whatever the local press officer tells you. So far, there is no evidence to the contrary. Writing observations of what you see on your trips is one thing; lecturing those of us who know better about the status of a counterinsurgency campaign is entirely another.

Ian May 14, 2008 at 12:31 pm

Ann,

You say that “one can travel around the vast majority of the provinces safely by oneself.” Would you mind giving us a general count? Or maybe simply list those provinces where you don’t think it’s safe enough to travel alone in 2008.

Thanks.

Alan Moore May 16, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Joshua,

In another post we have been having a healthy discussiong on the issues related to roads in Afghanistan. I have avoided the argument of “you haven’t been there” because I do not know what your experience is and I don’t believe that a visit to Afghanistan is a requirement for engaging in a discussion of the issues.

With that said, I am curious as to whether you have visited Afghanistan or not and your background on this subject. If you have not been to Afghanistan, I highly recommend it. You’ll have the time of your life and meet some great people. Your passion for the topic seems apparent and I believe it would provide some valuable insight. You will be able to see and judge for yourselve what is going on. You would not have to rely on people like Marlowe, Kilcullen, Blosser, Smucker, Ignatius, Moore, Morgan, Johnson and the myriad of others who have reported, discussed, or been quoted on the topic. I also would be very interested to see if and how your perspective would be changed.

For my part, I wish I could better express or “prove” (if anyone can truly prove something) the improvements that I saw during my time in Afghanistan.

Alan Moore May 16, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Joshua,

In another post we have been having a healthy discussiong on the issues related to roads in Afghanistan. I have avoided the argument of “you haven’t been there” because I do not know what your experience is and I don’t believe that a visit to Afghanistan is a requirement for engaging in a discussion of the issues.

With that said, I am curious as to whether you have visited Afghanistan or not and your background on this subject. If you have not been to Afghanistan, I highly recommend it. You’ll have the time of your life and meet some great people. Your passion for the topic seems apparent and I believe it would provide some valuable insight. You will be able to see and judge for yourselve what is going on. You would not have to rely on people like Marlowe, Kilcullen, Blosser, Smucker, Ignatius, Moore, Morgan, Johnson and the myriad of others who have reported, discussed, or been quoted on the topic. I also would be very interested to see if and how your perspective would be changed.

For my part, I wish I could better express or “prove” (if anyone can truly prove something) the improvements that I saw during my time in Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust May 20, 2008 at 7:44 am

This comment section is not a forum for posting unsubstantiated rumors. Troll elsewhere, please.

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