The Power of Propaganda in the Hands of Hacks

by Joshua Foust on 5/13/2008 · 7 comments

Our favorite counterinsurgency/Afghanistan expert is back: Ann Marlowe has a shiny new cover story in the Weekly Standard about how perfect the counterinsurgency is in RC-East:

While news reports like to speak of a “resurgent Taliban” in Afghanistan, in the 14 provinces that make up Regional Command East in Afghanistan they are a defeated military force. Not only do the Taliban refuse to engage American forces directly, they have not won an engagement with the Afghan National Army in a year. Even the unimpressive Afghan National Police have lately been winning battles with the insurgents.

That’s funny, I was under the impression—say, from actual incident reports—that the number of security incidents in the region was way up this year.

RC-East Security

Let’s dig into this hackery further.

Marlowe commits her first sin by thinking that because the Taliban no longer engage in open battle on the Shomali plains that they are defeated. This is the same mistake the U.S. made in Iraq (and, umm, Afghanistan)—an insurgency becomes more dangerous when it doesn’t fight openly. In fact, the number of IEDs and VBIEDs she writes off has risen in 2007 and 2008, bring record casualties, both civilian and Coalition. That is not the behavior of a defeated force, but rather one made stronger through the adoption of asymmetric methods.

Marlowe profiles Col. Marty Schweitzer, and quite glowingly. This is highly ironic for her: while heralding all the success he’s achieved in the provinces under his command, she neglects to mention on critical piece: the Human Terrain System. During his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Schweitzer said that the HTT team assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team headquartered at FOB Salerno, where Marlowe did her last embed, “reduced our kinetic operations, assisted in developing more effective non-kinetic courses of action, improved the unit’s overall situational awareness, improved consequence management, increased host nation government support, improved the Brigade’s humanitarian assistance efforts, improved village assessments, improved information operations capabilities, decreased enemy forces attacks, and decreased ordinary crime in our area of operations.”

Tall praise for a program Marlowe once wrote off as “buying into the ‘cultural knowledge’ critique [of counterinsurgency], and… a dubious version at that.” But now that the “right” people are singing its praises? Well she’s all sunshine and gum drops.

Talk about a hack. She can’t even get her own story straight.

This problem continues into the rest of her laborious, 5,500-word extravaganza. Much like a tired old Kaplan book, all the soldiers are brilliant, innovative, and “soft-spoked but iron-willed,” while those Pashtuns are rewarded for their good behavior like dogs even while they live in archaic, backwoods hovels that leave all the little children—who never, horror of horrors, learned to play catch—covered with dirt. Marlowe likes to brag to her critics about how much time she’s spent there, among the people and the troops. She’s even gone so far as to brag of her linguistic skills and superior cultural knowledge to actual working translators, while running around a FOB in Afghanistan wearing a tank top. But here, she writes as if she’s never before seen the place, as if she were David Ignatius comparing our noble troops to British imperialists in a Rudyard Kipling novel. Which could maybe explain the inexplicable line about families of midget policemen. (I’m serious.)

Anyone with access to Google images can confirm all of these descriptions Marlowe writes. Why the relentless exoticism, the hagiography built around our troops? In a word: this is propaganda. That is why she writes doozies like “the Army, typically, is more than willing to admit its mistakes,” or that “the tally of slain police officers” is a good tally of how well things are going.

She also drops in the standard line about the road construction. Only this time, she reserves nothing but praise for the military’s construction efforts, while offering nothing but scorn for the USAID contractors. Unlike her more skillful dupes in the media, however, Marlowe doesn’t actually make any claim about the roads. They “help” connect those “fiercely independent, isolationist Pashtuns” to the government in some way, but all she does is list the miles paved using CERP funds, as if that matters to the objective of connecting people to their government or doing anything useful at all.

And even here there is a curious battle at play. While I’m all about complaining about USAID’s contracting hassles—they are legion, and pale in comparison to the enormous handfuls of money unaccountably thrown at even the smallest military unit—she seems to miss the biggest problem. In a previous discussion on the benefits of roads, Harry Rud, who currently works for an NGO in Ghor province west of Kabul, offered this insight:

I’m still not entirely convinced that the benefits a road would bring to the people of Ghor would significantly reduce poverty and inequality, or that there wouldn’t be better ways of spending the huge amount of money it would cost to build a half-way decent and useful road.

I’ve heard tales of other road-building projects that have cost millions of dollars for just a few thousand meters, and have then been washed away over the winter. And other roads, while of some small benefit to locally hired Afghan labourers, that have been sub-contracted out, and sub-contracted out, and sub-contracted out again – each contracting company creaming off ‘a bit’ for themselves.

He and I disagree over the relative economic value of roads, but the key here is what happens to them once they’re built. One of the interesting things Joel Hafvenstein noted in his memoir of Helmand province is that the roads were so poorly maintained, the off-road tracks wound up being better routes over which to drive. Similarly, nearly everyone is in agreement that roads in Afghanistan are simply heinously expensive to build, and in some areas an over-focus on them may redirect funding from other, more immediately useful projects like poverty relief (which matters when basic commodities like food are eating nearly 60% of an average person’s income). Especially since roads made concentrated targets for IED and VBIED incidents, and since those incidents have resulted in India pulling all of its workers out of the country after the latest in a series of killings of its road workers. The military and the governor all want asphalt; USAID wants gravel. Marlowe mocks USAID for their foolishness. I wonder: how often does asphalt wash away? Is the higher erosion of gravel a better trade-off for the improved ease of repair and maintenance? These are the complexities of road construction in Afghanistan that the propagandists being led around by the nose on their military adventure tours don’t bother to explore.

But what is even greater here is a single line snuggled into the top half of a paragraph 3/4 through the essay: “There aren’t IED attacks there [in Spera], though there also aren’t any roads to speak of in the mountain fastness.” Ignoring the annoying use of Kipling terms (can any journalist write about Afghanistan without the lazy use of clichés?), Marlowe seems to think there is a connection between roads and IEDs. There once was a time when she not only proclaimed that roads solve IEDs, she took to the comments section here at to angrily shout her case.

Hack, indeed. Make up your mind, Marlowe.

Alas. The news in Khost is so good—they’re building a commercial airport, industrial park, big new power plants, some bank branches, and dozens of schools—you’d be forgiven for even wondering why we’re still needed there. After all, the sub-governor of Mandozai district, Haji Doulat, doesn’t take bribes because his family members run “a successful contracting business” that isn’t at all connected with those damned USAID contractors! And even though the troops there have to “massage Doulat’s not inconsiderable ego” and “reward him for his competence and honesty,” that isn’t at all like taking bribes from the good guys. No sir, it’s not corruption when we pay politicians for behavior we find acceptable—it’s only corruption when the bad guys do that. Does he also do tricks for money and construction projects?

See, the problem with this is that Marlowe is committing the cardinal sin of amateur Afghan studies: over-generalization. She is taking success in a single province—despite the continuing violence, Khost is a relative success—and pulling from that her story about the rest of the country. Though she claims to limit the story she tells to this one province, and only provides vignettes from it, her very first paragraph pulled it out to the entire regional command. The men she interviewed know better: Schweitzer says you “have to assess security village by village.” He was speaking in the context of her section on how great Khost was secured: with less than 200 paratroopers, her favorite Army unit only saw 27 police officers killed in multiple bomb explosions. Even though most of these were concentrated in Sabari, the problem, according to a Captain she talked to, is just that there isn’t a full platoon of policemen there. Remember that bit for later.

Let me take this moment to introduce Michael Bhatia (the link is where that chart of violence in RC-East came from). He was one of the social scientists on the HTT assigned to Colonel Schweitzer’s BCT, and Khost was one of the areas where he focused his research. His previous work was highly respected in the academic community, and despite the controversy people like Marlowe helped to fan about the program, he felt it a good idea and signed up.

Last Monday he was killed, along with two other soldiers, by an IED blast on his Humvee as he was traveling through the Sabari district of Khost. He was the first casualty in the Human Terrain System. He isn’t alone: Marlowe writes of two paratroopers killed during an IED attack in early March. And Sabari has seen a huge concentration of attacks.

But Sabari isn’t alone. Tani, one of the districts in Khost, has seen its own share of violence. While Marlowe helpfully points out that all Tani were Klahq Communists and that this explains their love of education (while still noting that communism was just another framework to pursue tribal and personal grievances), she doesn’t discuss why these incidents keep happening if the province is so damned secure. Progress is absolutely worth lauding; but she is writing as if there is no more work to be done.

She also gets things just plain old wrong. She writes of Spera district as if its mountain passes make it secure because “the enemy doesn’t want them.” Umm, what? Since when do militants hate inaccessible passes for infiltration and exfiltration? They know all the easy routes are monitored and some patrolled; they’ve been reduced to the tough ones. Spera might not have as many incidents as Sabari, but it is home to at least several infiltration and at least one exfiltration route—those the military has been willing to disclose publicly.

More curious than her tendency to simply repeat everything the Army tells her with no skepticism or independent research is Marlowe’s lack of critical thinking. After bragging about how the province is doing so well it is being handed over to the Afghan National Police, she notes that “if the rank and file are lazy and ill-trained, their superiors in the eastern region are far worse.” They are “thieves, extortionists, or rapists in uniform,” according to her. Clearly, handing them control of law enforcement in a few districts will go over well.

Also curious is her repetition of the charge that the DynCorp police trainers are lazy cowards. Now, things may have changed since last I had first-hand accounts of FOB Salerno, but no one was accusing them of being lazy and too cowardly to leave the base last year. In fact, word is they had to fight for permission to leave, and do so at least every other day. LTC Custer’s complaint about them is revealing: “They report to the Department of State, they are not under the maneuver commander’s command, so what are they doing in my battlespace? We are going to take over training of the ANP. We need to get fingerprint and retinal systems in their hands.”

Sounds like sour grapes and a turf war more than anything else. And what’s with that last bit? Even Ann Marlowe can’t find much to praise in the ANP, they’re renown for their thievery and rapistry, and yet the one thing LTC Custer thinks they need is not basic ethics, anti-corruption training, or even basic law enforcement classes, but retinal scanners? Did Khost turn into Fairfax County during the writing of this article?

I wonder if she bothered to interview any DynCorp employees to get their side of the story, or if she is just parroting whatever LTC Custer told her to say. Actually, I don’t wonder about that. Interestingly, just last month she was praising DynCorp as part of the Army’s vaunted new police training program. But LTC Custer doesn’t like them, so who cares what the reality is? How foul.

It isn’t until the very end of her article that Marlowe admits this grand experiment in social engineering is really a house built on sand. She complains the Army is too accommodating of Pashtun misogyny, despite their distaste of Pashtun “village culture” (whatever that is). She wants to change their culture to accept and value women just as we do, as if we have the right to do so: “Afghans may resist change, but our values have prestige for them. American taxpayers are funding much of Afghanistan’s development, and we have a right to tweak Afghan society in directions we consider beneficial.”

What astounding arrogance! If Ann Marlowe were really the Afghanistan expert she claims so very often to be, she would know that it is the deliberate engineering of society that has undone nearly every ruler of the country, foreign or domestic. From Amanullah Khan, one of Afghanistan’s great kings, to Naqibullah, efforts to “reform” or “improve” Afghan society have served only to unite otherwise disparate tribal and ethnic groups in opposition. Her reference to educated Pashtuns is similarly disconnected: the urban Pashtuns, those who brag about being “de-tribalized,” have very little connection to those in the countryside who fill the ranks of the Taliban groups. This is not new, either: Louis Dupree wrote extensively of the disconnect between the cosmopolitan, educated Afghans in Kabul and the other big cities and the poor, uneducated villagers in the countryside.

Simply declaring your right to engineer society because you have money is offensive in the extreme. And it is a fool’s errand: if we are so capable of forcibly changing Afghan society, why can’t we even change ours, in our own inner cities? Our record at engineering societies is a poor one.

“Culture,” Marlowe closes, is “the hardest to change.” Absolutely. Culture changes organically, it responds to external and internal stimuli at its own pace. Rapid change results in shock. The one thing Afghanistan does not need right now is yet another pervasive culture shock, as Marlowe advocates.

But then again, she doesn’t seem to know what she’s advocating most of the time. Like other propagandists, she repeats uncritically whatever the military tells her, because she likes and believes in their mission. That is fine, and leads to many half-truths being dutifully reported, but when it leads to directly contradicting her previous work—with no explanation or apology—then it it past time to take her seriously.

“It’s nice to know that when the government collapses in Kabul,” Barnett Rubin recently said, “at least Khost will still be secure.” Maybe that isn’t quite so nice.

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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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Dr Evan Stark PhD May 14, 2008 at 2:53 pm

Mr. Foust,

I enjoyed your essay immensely. You’re have at least two fine gifts: eloquence and a perspicacious mind that seems to have the refreshing ability to see issues in all their dimensionality. So because you now know that I’m a fan, take what follows as genuine puzzlement more than critique.

Beyond, perhaps, justifiably, taking Marlowe to the woodshed—your obvious ire with her work almost denudes your fine work of it’s value—I’m unsure what you’re offering in the affirmative. You did a terrific job of illuminating someone’s perhaps limited intellect and possible ignorance (or even irresponsible laziness), but beyond that, and beyond suggesting that the people who in part pay my bills are in some way patently nefarious, what is your point? If it was to say that Afghanistan is complex, that Marlowe parrots the party line because she doesn’t get it, then I’m disappointed. It would seem you’re wasting your considerable talent on petty, personal criticism. I understand your irritation with Ms. Marlowe. But why dignify her deficits by expending the energy that you did?

From this same perspective, your piece sheds some light on others’ failings, intellectual or otherwise. OK, the public needs to hear this. But reflecing on your essay, I’m wondering why, equipped as you are, ironically, and malcontentously carp when you can take it a notch higher by taking the positive tack.

I’m hungry for your take on what we need to be doing in Afghanistan. My understanding of the world there is woefully limited. I grasp how we fail but I grope for how we might succeed. (Maybe it needs to be framed in other terms.) I’d bet that others want to know this, too. Consider for your next post some positive prescriptions. It just might help.

Dr. Evan Stark PhD

Joshua Foust May 14, 2008 at 5:11 pm


Thank you for the kind words (I’m somewhat embarrassed by them!). I think if you do some site searches, you can find what you’re looking for — I’ve written extensively here over the past two years of alternative approaches to the problems of Afghanistan’s corruption, opium cultivation, security, and economic development.

What I’m doing recently, and perhaps these could all be grouped together in a series, is tracking a strategic information campaign. I don’t assign the government nefarious motives, or at least I don’t intend to — they have every right to broadcast their message. I would quibble with the value of spinning as hard as they do, but that’s more for practical reasons (i.e. we aren’t served by thinking we’re winning when we’re not, which is a mistake the biased and misleading press coverage in the Soviet Union in the 1980s helped to propagate, leading to strategic paralysis) than anything else.

What bugs the hell out of me is how many reporters—almost uniformly American—are willingly making themselves PR outlets for the government. I could be over-idealizing a past that never existed, but I seem to recall the press serving a skeptical function, questioning government claims and checking them against a non-official reality. Right now that isn’t the case, and several journalists and experts are being given managed tours then simply reporting what they were told to report.

This doesn’t serve the public at all, which relies on press reporting to get at the “real” story behind things. If, as Ann Marlowe advocates, Afghanistan is teetering on the verge of victory, we buy into a narrative other than reality, and this leads to advocating bad policy. There may well be other gains in the new counterinsurgency techniques she profiles here, but she only measured it in terms of security, which is not a reliable metric of success.

In other words, it is lazy. But so are the writings of Thomas Johnson, Chris Mason, Bret Stephens, and David Ignatius. She isn’t alone, just singled out here.

These people need to be called out, because policy-makers listen to them. If their falsehoods get translated into policy, which is not uncommon, then we go down the wrong path and wind up worse off than we were before. I want to call them on their misleading reporting so that they won’t be used to formulate policy, especially among the hip new counterinsurgency crowd, which has an annoying tendency toward groupthink and away from critical analysis. They need skeptics, because I am not an expert in counterinsurgency and yet the works I read are filled with holes.

Does that make sense?

Synoia May 15, 2008 at 5:41 pm

“Louis Dupree wrote extensively of the disconnect between the cosmopolitan, educated Afghans in Kabul and the other big cities and the poor, uneducated villagers in the countryside.”

Just like Africa. Interesting.

Dean May 16, 2008 at 2:22 pm

“Fascinating” is what Spock would have said to this series of exchanges on this website. “Interesting but stupid” is what Artie Johnson’s character would have said on the Laugh-In show during the 60s. I find it useful though. I agree with the comments suggesting that the issues being discussed need to be seen from all the angles – OK, who’s taken the time to walk in the Afghanis shoes for the longest? One good study I can recommend is that of Greg Mortenson in his book Three Cups of Tea. He has spent more time on the ground and in the villages of the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan than, perhaps, anyone alive right now. And, in terms the peoples of those lands can identify with – he has helped them. But that takes time, and – like Mortenson essentially exclaims, “we are a fast food society, etc. that finds it most difficult to truly deal with the Afghanis and Pakis in their sense of time.” His patience and discipline to see their world, truly from their perspective, is what has won him acclaim and respect across this world – YET, his approach takes time – their time, in their terms – not ours!

Patrick Rodgers, Ph.D. May 17, 2008 at 11:37 pm

In 2004 and part of 2005, I managed the Police Training Program in Afghanistan when it was under the control of the Department of Justice (DOJ). DOJ staff had designed and implemented the program from the beginning, under contract to the State Department INL. The DOJ philosophy was for a light American footprint and it worked exceptionally well. Every where there was an American there was an Afghan counterpart learing how to do the job. This applied from the top down starting with the Afghan General in charge of Police Training. One of my jobs was to mentor the General teaching him how to be an effective Training Manager. By the time I arrived, all of the classroom instructors were Afghan nationals who had completed an intensive Instructor Development Training and were being mentored by Americans. In addition to the Central Training Center in Kabul there were six Regional Training Centers spread around the country, each having a Training Team of ten American and International law enforcement professionals. The Trainers were hired by DynCorp under contract to the State Department. In my travels throughout the country meeting and evaluating the Training Teams, I found every single man and woman to be a highly qualified law enforcement professional. They were far from lazy and went far beyond the extra mile with their Afghan counterparts. To suggest otherwise is typical of the biased media reporting coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

While I was there, there was a constant battle with the military who wanted to take over Police Training. At that time the military was training the Afghan National Army (ANA). The Afghan government opposed the military involvement in Police Training as they wanted them civilian oriented as opposed to military oriented. The State Department fought the military over this issue as did the Departmet of Justice.

Although, the Department of Justice had done nothing less than a phenominal job in designing, implementing and managing the Police Training Program, the State Department did not renew it’s contract in 2005. With the DOJ contract terminated, I lost my job and came home. Within a year after the State Department taking over the Police Training, the military was successful in it’s goal of taking control.

While I have great admiration for the military and their mission, Police Training is not part of it. They are not trained or experienced in the Rule of Civil Law and particularly in the philosophy of Policing in a Democratic Society. My contacts in Afghanistan advise me that there has been a substantial decrease in the qualitative aspects of the program. Apparently the battle over who controls what is still going on between the State Department INL and the military. Until the politicians in Washington understand the nature of the Afghanistan problem (Iraq as well) and get the military out of Police Training problems will continue to exist.

On the resurgence of the Taliban. They only survive because there are small pockets of support in various parts of the country. As with any guerrilla warfare environment, insurgents only exist where people provide support, food and a place to hide. Until recently, the military did not recognize this and operations were based on standard warfare models. Both the Army and Marine Corps have recently adopted a new Counterinsurgency Strategy which is being applied to both Afghanistan and Iraq. This strategy focuses on denying the insurgents that support from the local people that they need to survive. Success is being recognized in Iraq and is sure to follow in Afghanistan.

In the opinion of this observer, both Afghanistan and Iraq would be best served if the military focused on what they do best, seeking out and destroying insurgents and leave the training of the Police to the law enforcement professionals. This power struggle serves the interest of no one and especially not the people of the countries we are supposed to be helping.

Cannoneer No. 4 May 20, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Joshua, Ann Marlowe’s failure to be gloomy and doomy enough to suit you is probably more a function of her being a writer for the Weekly Standard, a generally Counterinsurgent Supportive outlet whose readership seems to appreciate rare tidbits of optimism, than of any Leni Riefenstahl-esque attempt to propagandize.

Dr. Rodgers, I wonder if I could prevail upon you to comment over here?

Joshua Foust May 20, 2008 at 1:47 pm

“Canoneer,” I’m in agreement with you about the Standard’s readership, though I’d be less charitable than simply saying they crave optimism. From what I’ve read of their other scholarship on both wars, they’re not very interested in the truth, so much as a strong propaganda campaign to avoid “supporting the insurgents.” Printing lies feeds into the insurgent narrative, not honest evaluations of how well we’re doing.

But my complaint with Ms. Marlowe goes deeper. The Standard is not the only place she’s printed similar rubbish—the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other magazines have all run stories by her, and they have a similar tack.

Regardless, I don’t think trotting out Riefenstahl is a useful example. There are many other propagandists and forms of propaganda, and what Ms. Marlowe and similar reporters are doing does not even vaguely approach covering for the Nazis. The kind of propaganda I’m talking about is more akin to the fluff in Stars & Stripes than anything else — sensationalist lollygaggery. Which is not Serious Reporting by any stretch, nor is it even remotely vigorous.

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