Responding to Ann Marlowe

by Joshua Foust on 1/13/2009 · 3 comments

So my jaw dropped when Ann Marlowe compared Afghanistan to Crenshaw, and said because it’s such a great success story, we can fix Afghanistan too. It was just so… wrong, in such a fundamental way, made worse by her gleeful crypto-British endorsement of forcing the salving light of civilization on those ruthless Afghan savages.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Masood Aziz, the former Number 2 Diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, DC, wrote a rebuttal in Forbes:

The problem isn’t that “Afghan culture is dysfunctional,” but rather that Afghan culture and society have been torn apart by hundreds of years of conflict, during which the country has been at the center of the Great Game played by powerful external forces. Such utter social breakdown is not unique to Afghanistan…

What Marlowe is missing is the very fact that culture is essential to development and that it needs to be protected in its own land and nurtured when in danger–not imposed from the outside. It is now well-recognized that development efforts only work if they are inclusive of human security, which itself embodies cultural and social norms. This “human development” approach–as elucidated by the Noble laureate Amartya Sen–has its focus on expanding human liberty and freedom and respect for the local population in defining their own needs and futures.

I of course agree with Mr. Aziz, and not just because I met him once at an Embassy dinner. Mockable it may be, the idea of preserving a culture’s dignity really does go a long way—especially if the very point is to create a self-sufficient Afghanistan no longer dependent on America for its security and economic future (more on this in a later post). Then again, Ann Marlowe’s comment to the piece is equally instructive:

Afghan leaders invaded and ruled parts of what are now Iran, Pakistan and India in the Middle Ages, and Afghans are still rightly proud of their achievements and the high culture of their courts. Turnabout is fair play. Sometimes we all have to learn from outsiders.

What a thoroughly wretched viewpoint. Ironically, this forms one of the pillars of Osama bin Laden’s grievance against all those Crusaders you probably thought died out in the 1200’s. Marlowe isn’t bin Laden (or anything close, it’s a ludicrous comparison). But her thinking is just as lazy, and, ultimately, just as dangerous. Even if “blaming the rest of the world is a favorite Afghan pastime,” as she says, in this one case it is actually true. We are responsible for Afghanistan in its seventh year of American occupation. Not anyone else.

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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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Robert Speirs January 14, 2009 at 1:06 pm

The only interesting question in my view is why the Afghans have not been able to defend themselves from interference and domination, whether by Russians or Al Qaeda or the West. No culture can thrive unless it can defend itself. No one “protected” Anglosphere culture. It was strong enough to survive. If Afghan culture is so weak that it cannot assure itself a space to develop, it is doomed in any event. The only reason Brits or Americans are there is that the weakness of the culture threatens us, because it gives shelter to terrorist wolves. That we cannot and will not allow.

Dan January 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Robert, some of the assumptions in your comment are just absurd. There are more factors at play in the success of the “Anglosphere” than some unquantifiable cultural “strength.” Cultural “strength” does not determine the rise or fall of nations.

First there is the accident of geography. Afghanistan is inland and surrounded by other nations; whereas Britain is on an island. The U.S. is separated from most of its rivals by the world’s two largest oceans…and has access to more natural resources.

Second there is the issue of numbers. The Anglosphere is helped by the fact that it has large numbers of armed troops. The US would not have been as successful if it had not seized a great deal of land from the previous inhabitants of North America. The land was lost not because of which culture was stronger, but in large part because the American military alone outnumbered the native population.

Third there is technology. The Anglosphere is helped by the fact that its troops are better-armed (again not due to superiority of culture but due to the fact that we have more resources). Similarly, the Polish didn’t fall to the Germans because they had an inferior culture. They fell because they were hurling cavalry against panzer tanks.

Fourth, there is the question of stability. Being on its own continent with few local rivals and a massive reserve of natural resources, the U.S. has been able to maintain a stable government. The last civil war was a century and a half ago. Afghanistan has had no such privilege, no time of peace in which to develop that kind of stability or unity.

Finally, get your facts straight. Afghanistan didn’t “shelter terrorists” in 1994 (thus indicating as you put it a history of being a “weak” culture). In fact it was a quite liberal nation. By 1996 it had been taken over by the Taliban, with tanks rolling into Kabul, and the structure of the nation’s government, education system, and media were entirely remade. But pre-Taliban Afghanistan never sounded like what I think you would consider a “weak” culture.

The reason Afghanistan is “weak” now is because 1) its previous infrastructure was taken out by the Taliban, and 2) the Taliban infrastructure was taken out by the Western occupation. If you invade a nation and eliminate their government, military, and police forces, then they are going to be “weak” until something is built in the place of those forces. That has nothing to do with strength of culture.

unaha-closp January 14, 2009 at 11:10 pm


Substitute “Swiss” for “Anglosphere” in Robert Spiers comments and reheat.

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