Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a writer and businesswoman based in New York City. In 2011, she made four trips to Libya to cover the revolution and war and returned twice in 2012. She is working on a book that will follow Libya's first year post-Gaddafi. Between 2002 and 2011 she traveled regularly to Afghanistan and published often on Afghanistan's politics, economy, culture and the U.S. counterinsurgency there. Her articles have appeared in the op –ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and New York Post, and in the Weekly Standard, Daily Beast, Forbes.com, TNR.com,and many other publications. She tweets regularly (@annmarlowe) and blogs on Libya, the Arab Spring, the links between war and art and the cultural aspects of counterinsurgency for World Affairs at: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/new/blogs/marlowe

Her monograph on the life and intellectual context of David Galula was published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in summer 2010. Ms. Marlowe has also published two memoirs and is one of the contributers to A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Ms. Marlowe is a regular guest on the John Batchelor radio show discussing Libya, Afghanistan and counterinsurgency. She has also appeared on Fox's "Happening Now", PBS’s “Ideas in Action” with Jim Glassman, VOA, RTTV, BloggingHeadsTV.com and other television programs. She has spoken at U.S. Army bases, the Army War College, U.S. State Department, the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Present in Paris, and American colleges. In 2009, she was a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution and returned there for a research fellowship in 2010.

Ms. Marlowe was born in Suffern, New York in 1958 and educated at public schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She received her B.A. in philosophy magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1979 and studied classical philosophy there in the Ph.D. program in 1979-80. In 1984, she received an MBA in finance from Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.


TOEFL, a Desperately Dull & Profoundly Unfair Exam

March 14th, 2016

(originally published on March 14 2016 in Tabletmag.com; http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/198339/toefl-abuses-english-language)

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe

Tablet
United States
TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe
March 13, 2016 • 10:00 PM

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“Who is Alicia Keys?” Amina’s voice over the Viber connection to Afghanistan was faint but her puzzlement was clear. I didn’t think I was going to have to give lessons on American pop culture when I set out to tutor Amina, 16, and her brother Ahmad, 17, for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Truth was, I didn’t know much about Alicia Keys either, and that hadn’t interfered with my life so far.

I’d met Amina and Ahmad in their home town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan in 2002, when they were 3 and 4 years old. We took to each other from the start. And I kept visiting their family—and staying in their big family compound—at least once a year up until 2011. For most of that time, Afghanistan in general and Mazar in particular seemed to be on an upward path.

Amina and Ahmad both go to the local Afghan-Turk High School—run by the Turkish Gulenist movement and rather peculiar but the best option among the not very impressive selection of local private schools. Everything was going well for Amina and Ahmad until this year, when the Afghan government began what looks like a meltdown. This summer, the girls’ Afghan-Turk school received Taliban death threats, and the Taliban’s success in capturing Kunduz briefly this fall didn’t bode well for Mazar, just 100 miles away. So, this fall Amina and Ahmad’s parents asked me to help them apply to boarding school in the United States.

To apply to American boarding school or college, foreign students must take an English language test, usually instead of the PSAT or SAT. For all the boarding schools we were interested in (and for the vast majority of colleges) the TOEFL is required. While there are TOEFL junior and primary tests for ages 11+ and 8+ respectively, the TOEFL iBT, or Internet-based test, which Amina and Ahmad will take, is suggested for “16+”. They will be competing with students five or 10 years older—they are lucky enough to attend a local TOEFL prep course, and the other students are at the local university. The TOEFL IBT takes four and a half hours and incorporates reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections.

I’d assumed Amina and Ahmad would have a tough time with the TOEFL, as they have little experience with English. Uzbek, a Turkic language, is their home language. Dari—a dialect of Farsi and, along with Pashtu, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan—is what they speak outside the house. Turkish is the second language of their high school. They also study Pashtu in school, as it’s obligatory for Afghan students to study both Dari and Pashtu. But not English. So, I was prepared for an uphill battle to improve Amina and Ahmad’s English. And I adjusted to the fact that the Internet is slow in Mazar, and it takes a long time to download files or refresh a screen.

What I didn’t expect was the esoteric cultural content embedded in the test. In three months of working an hour a day with Ahmad and Amina, seven days a week, I’ve come to see the TOEFL as almost always dull and often profoundly unfair to students from the more remote parts of the developing world.

***

Alicia Keys came up in a practice reading selection on the Empire State Building’s switch to LED lights—an event which wasn’t exactly of earth-shattering importance for me or anyone else I know in New York. “What does Alicia Keys suggest the Empire State building is a symbol of?” the question asked. The explanation involved my explaining to the Afghan siblings why New York is called “The Empire State.” Another question about the lighting of the Empire State Building referred to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This also puzzled the young Afghans, as this isn’t a car available in Afghanistan.

It also took a lot of work—and I mean, a lot—to explain the worldview embodied in the test. Two of the 10 questions in the Empire State Building selection focused on the environmental effects of the building’s shift to LED lights, using the phrases “to become more green” and “environmentally conscious,” which make no intuitive sense to non-English speakers from the developing world. For those who live in a largely pre-industrial society like Amina and Ahmad, getting electricity is a much more familiar concern than saving it. (Viber makes our sessions possible even when the city power is down.)

The TOEFL, I came to see, is less a test of proficiency in the English language than it is a test of students’ familiarity with fashionable American media and pop culture references and with current topics like global warming and the greenhouse effect. For instance, the Empire State Building passage includes this:

The LED system has “16.7 million color possibilities, in digital combinations of ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes,” says Phil O’Donnell, of Burlington, Mass.-based Philips Color Kinetics that’s responsible for the system and worked with a resident lighting designer. It’s the sum of all possibilities – a huge palette.

While it is possible to imagine the person for whom this kind of breathless virtue-signaling might be a source of near-physical pleasure, it is hard to argue that properly parsing word-combinations like “ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes” is crucial for academic success in America. While I was trying to teach Ahmad and Amina grammar, vocabulary, and test smarts—read the first paragraph and the last, then look at the questions to see how many you can answer and what you need to attend to as you read the rest—what I couldn’t teach were dozens of references to things, places, and experiences that Afghans have no acquaintance with.

An internationally famous ballerina, Maria Tallchief, demonstrated that the quality of ballet in North America could equal those of the ballet in Europe.

If you don’t know whether a ballerina is a scientist or a dancer, or that the words “ballerina” and “ballet” are related, how are you supposed to answer the question?

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the behemoth that runs the TOEFL, insists that cultural context has little to do with the accuracy of the test. ETS’ Manager of Public Relations, Allyson Norton, emailed answers to my questions about cultural context. She responded,

One of the key principles of passage selection is that the passage needs to stand alone, meaning no prior knowledge is needed to understand the passage. … Further, background knowledge of content within test passages does not significantly impact scores.

But is it realistic to think that students who have no background knowledge on any question, like Ahmad and Amina, generally do as well as, say, test takers from a European country?

Norton sent me an internal study that showed that:

reading passages were neither advantageous nor disadvantageous to those who had physical science backgrounds or were familiar with a certain culture, and this holds for both the lower and higher proficiency groups.

The paper that Norton sent me referred to two types of mental processing used in reading comprehension, top down and bottom up. Both are used in most reading. Those who rely too heavily on top down, context-based understanding may make errors. But Norton also sent me a document that proves my main point: a country-by-country breakdown of average scores on the TOEFL’s four parts. There is a clear correlation between countries that are poor, isolated, and less linked to the world economy and countries with low average TOEFL scores. No surprise, Afghanistan ranks near the bottom with an average score of 69 out of a possible 120.

The rankings are fascinating. It’s no surprise that Equatorial Guinea stands dead last at 59, but Saudi Arabia is also at 59. Meanwhile Israel is 93, just two points below English-speaking New Zealand, and the highest scores belong to Austria and English-speaking Northern Ireland tied at 100. So, what are these tests actually measuring?

As the variation in country scores suggests, the common-sense hypothesis that success on the TOEFL is correlated with coming from a richer, more developed, more globalized country is true. The TOEFL tests cultural knowing-ness as much as it tests English skills. Of course, there’s a correlation there, too: If your English is really good, chances are you spend time on English language websites, listen to English language songs, watch English language movies, and so on.

The research also shows that test takers who are applying to high school have the highest average scores, higher than applicants to graduate or professional schools. My hypothesis is that apart from anomalies like Ahmad and Amina, most foreign teens who apply to boarding school in the United States are from rich, sophisticated families who have sent their children to excellent schools where they are immersed in American culture.

There’s also another issue, which has nothing to do with cultural literacy. Many of the TOEFL reading selections are simply deadly dull. Some are poorly written, vague, and confusing; others are clear but concern subject matter like geology that would get very few page views if posted on an online news site. I can understand that graduate-student test takers ought to be ready to tackle tedious material—adults often have to read boring articles for work. But why is this necessary for teenagers applying to high school? Why not pick excerpts from famous speeches by Churchill or Lincoln? How about some easy English poetry? When I asked Amina and Ahmad to read some poems by Robert Frost, they were much more interested than in anything the TOEFL practice tests have put before them.

Ironically, though there is not much to say in favor of the Afghan school system, public or private—they don’t teach evolution, for instance; and brutal physical punishment, though officially prohibited, is not uncommon—Afghan students know well the glories of Persian literature. They study the great Persian (and Pashtu) poets. Ahmad and Amina have memorized poetry in Farsi and Turkish (the most celebrated Afghan poet, Rumi, also wrote in Turkish). It’s sad that nothing they have encountered in prepping for the TOEFL has given them a hint that English is a powerful, economical, and supple language that has produced libraries full of magnificent novels, essays, and poetry.

Winner Take All (review of Barash’s Out of Eden)

March 9th, 2016

(originally published in The Weekly Standard on March 14 2016: http://www.weeklystandard.com/winner-take-all/article/2001398)

Winner Take All
Polygamy is more common, and more consequential, than you think.

Mar 14, 2016 | By Ann Marlowe

If you’ve ever wanted to know why Albuquerque topless pole dancers get significantly higher tips on days when they are more fertile—and who doesn’t?—this book is for you. Like many other aspects of human behavior, it has to do with the fact that men and women both try to maximize the success of their genes, but they necessarily follow different strategies. In a state of nature, men try to impregnate as many women as possible, while women try to secure the best providers possible for their children. It’s not necessary that a woman have all her children with one man, but it’s generally best for their survival if children grow up with the man who fathered them. Thus, men try to become harem masters, while women try for serial monogamy.

Of course, it’s been a long time since we lived in a state of nature, and it’s another matter whether we want to validate all of our biological impulses. But David Barash has one big theme, repeated again and again: Polygamy is the “default setting for human intimacy.” Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, outlines humanity’s past and our similarities with other mammals to show that human culture incorporates both polygyny and (almost always covertly) polyandry. Along the way, he argues that serial monogamy is better than polygamy for most people. The reasons differ for each gender.

Polygamy is close to winner-take-all for males of all species: “Under polygyny, the ‘variance’ in male reproductive success is high, whereas the variance in female reproductive success is low.” Some unsuccessful males don’t get to reproduce at all, though a few will get to father many, many children. On the other hand, nearly all fertile females will be impregnated by some male.

The question, in terms of reproductive success, is whether a woman was better off being the fifth wife of a high-status man or the sole wife of an average-status man. It has to do with how many of her children survive. And infant mortality can be very alarming in polygynous households: For example, almost half of Dogon children in Mali die before the age of 5, and kids from polygamous Dogon households die at a rate 7 to 11 times that found in monogamous households. Closer to home, anecdotal evidence from the police blotter is confirmed by studies showing that the biggest risk factor for children is living with a nonbiological parent. And in a harem, all children live with nonbiological parents.

There are a lot of illuminating facts here. “When any species shows a consistent pattern of males larger and stronger than females,” Barash writes, “it’s a good bet that polygyny is involved.” This is because bigger males tend to win out in male-male competition for mates. Males and females are around the same size in species lacking this competition. Barash has previously written on the biological basis for violence, and it’s fascinating to learn that a 2014 United Nations report found that between 2000 and 2014, homicide and “acts of personal violence” killed more people around the world than wars did—about six million. This is testimony to the place of competition among males in human evolution, for almost all these murders were committed by men—and most were committed on men, too.

There are also some duds. Barash includes too many extended quotes from H. L. Mencken, and his literary scholarship can be unreliable (John Calvin did not live in 18th-century Geneva!). At least one argument is alarmingly careless: In most animal species, females keep breeding until death. What’s the evolutionary payoff to stopping? Barash discusses the “grandmother hypothesis,” which argues that senior women help perpetuate their genes by caring for grandchildren. This may be true—but it isn’t true that, in the conditions under which we evolved, “women undergo menopause at the age when their own children are beginning to reproduce.” It’s more likely that women began reproducing in their mid-teens in prehistoric times, becoming grandmothers in their early-to-mid-30s. The age of menopause, at 50 or so, was near death.

Barash is predictably deferential to the bien pensant: “The more we know about the crucial role of cooperative breeding, the more we see that ‘biparental’ care can be provided by a range of parent-like figures, definitely including same-sex adult partners with commitment to each other.” This insistence on not giving offense might be what leads Barash to avoid one obvious topic: the effect of 1,400 years of Islam, with its official sanction of polygyny, on the cultures where it has held sway. Barash points out that only a few percent of Muslim men seem to have more than one wife. But up until fairly recent times, these would have been the richest and most influential among them.

If Barash is right to argue that children in polygynous households have a higher mortality rate, because of the stepmother effect, one could say that the richest, most successful Muslim households have not been producing children at the rate of the richest, most successful Christian households. And the wives in polygynous households, who would be expected to be the highest-status women from the richest families—who are likely to be the daughters of men who are more clever and resourceful—are not reproductively as successful as they would be if they were monogamously married. So, over the course of centuries, it’s possible that the most talented portion of the population in the Muslim world has been under-reproducing.

But although Barash doesn’t ask, or answer, all the questions one might want him to address, he does provide a lucid, well-organized review of the current state of knowledge about polygamy. Anyone who thinks or writes about related issues will find this a valuable guide.

The Next Dangerous Move in Libya

March 9th, 2016

(originally published in thedailybeast.com on February 22 2016: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/02/22/the-next-dangerous-move-in-libya.html)

Ann Marlowe

Chaos 02.22.16 12:01 AM ET
The Next Dangerous Move in Libya

The Islamic State is growing in Libya. But to fight it, the Libyan state has to be resurrected. Critical moves are expected in the next few days and weeks.

Almost every day brings a different European leader calling for military intervention to save Libya from the so-called Islamic State—but only once there is a single government in Libya with legitimate claims to control the entire country; one government, that is, to “invite” those foreign troops. And while the Europeans wait, the White House steps back even further, as The Daily Beast reported Thursday, telling the Pentagon to put its plans for a major intervention on hold.

Hence the urgency behind efforts to seat the painstakingly brokered “Government of National Accord” in Tripoli as soon as possible. But politically and militarily, that’s no simple matter, and the question of foreign intervention, seen from the ground in Libya, is even more problematic. The Italians who occupied Italy from 1911 to ’43 are believed to have killed or imprisoned a third of the population by 1934, when they declared the country “pacified.”

Today, the killing goes on, with supposedly surgical airstrikes by American forces. On Friday, American planes hit the coastal town of Sabratha, reportedly targeting a specific ISIS cell and, in the process, killing some 43 people. Yet there are no plans to move against the ISIS stronghold in the city of Sirte, because, once again, there is no fixed regime with which to coordinate such actions.

Who can trigger the chain of events that just might bring a unified government, foreign stabilization assistance, an end to ISIS and the many, many other things that need doing to resurrect this country?

One important player is Colonel Idris Madi of the Libyan National Army, the commander of the Tripoli manteqah or region, responsible for seating the new national accord government in the old national capital, even though, at the moment, the city is still under the tenuous control of dozens of extremist militia collectively known as Fajr Libya or Libya Dawn.

Like the rest of the national army, the colonel is under the command of the Ministry of Defense in Bayda, in eastern Libya, and this in turn is under the internationally recognized House of Representatives in Tobruk, which governs most of eastern Libya, some of southern Libya, and Zintan, a mountain town that is effectively an island separated from the coast by Libya Dawn territory. Zintan is just a two-hour drive away from the capital, but since August 2014 it’s been cut off by road.

Madi, with silver hair and mustache, glasses, and wearing a uniform with his colonel’s insignia, looks very different from the thuggish Tripoli militia leaders in their rumpled mercenary chic. He is very close to General Khalifa Haftar, the principle commander of the national army, and he holds the first rank in the Western region. Madi was with Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi until the dictator’s fall at the hands of the European-backed revolution in 2011.

As a Zintani, Madi has a big dog in the fight for Tripoli. The militias that had held the Tripoli airport until August 2014 were from Zintan, and there is no worse blood in Libya than between Zintanis and the Tripoli and Misrata militias that defeated them, destroying the airport in the process.

But Madi commands regular army troops, not militias, and was at pains to emphasize that militias cannot be involved in the process of seating the national accord government, or, “We will be back to square one.”
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We spoke over Skype five years to the day after the Libyan revolution began in Benghazi—a very different time, when hopes were high and a manic idealism pervasive. But in recent times, after a year and a half of slow-boil civil war and economic collapse, Libya’s mood is decidedly grim.

Libya’s two contesting power centers, the one in Tobruk and the General National Congress in Tripoli, which is under the control of the Islamist “Libya Dawn” militias, are now under pressure from the international community to accept the Government of National Accord so that the country can face ISIS with a united front.

So, if all those ducks can be lined up, and the Libyan National Army has the backing of the Government of National Accord, what will it take to defeat the so-called Islamic State in their midst? Can the job be done without a lot of international help?

“Most Libyans don’t accept ISIS”, the colonel said. “But ISIS was a part of the Fajr government or collaborating with them.” The regular Libyan army “is able to defeat ISIS, not through airstrikes but on the ground,” he said.

“We just need international help for monitoring,” Madi continued, meaning intelligence on the wherabouts of militias and combatants. “We cannot talk about specific numbers. We need support of the international community. We need information—monitoring of borders and the movement of fighters inside the country. ”

The new Government of National Accord is a motley undistinguished group that few Libyans have greeted with enthusiasm, but most probably regard it as better than continued chaos. It was propped up by the United Nations on Dec. 17, 2015. The ministers-designate have spent the last two months in Tunisia and then Morocco trying to name a cabinet that will get the backing of the hitherto legitimate government in Tobruk, the legislature known as the House of Representatives or HoR. (Everything has an acronym in Libya.)
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On Tuesday the 23rd, the HoR is to vote on the latest iteration, a group of merely 18 ministers, down from 30-something, that has to please all the city-states and tribal groupings in the East. This is in itself a tall order, and it’s rumored that some of the names are so controversial that the vote will be name by name rather than for the whole slate.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the GNA has asked for international protection even to go to Tobruk for the vote, given the still very fragile security in the eastern stronghold of the legitimate government. Madi said nothing of this embarrassment, nor would he corroborate rumors that U.S. special operations forces already are in Western Libya cooperating with the national army.

“We don’t have any dealings with any U.S. forces,” he said, “but we will in the future.”

Assuming the HoR approves the new government, the real hurdle is seating it in Tripoli, controlled by the Islamist militias that seized the capital in August 2014. Madi seemed confident as he spoke (in Arabic, using a U.S.-educated translator).

“Two weeks after the House of Representatives approves the cabinet, we can bring them to Tripoli,” he said. “The commanders have lists of the soldiers and we are communicating daily.We will have about 6,000 soldiers and 2,500 policeman. The Libyan National Army has 10 regions. Each has to give 500 soldiers to this operation. In western Libya, there are 500 soldiers from the coast, 500 from the mountains and 200 inside Tripoli. “

The LNA’s plans for Tripoli revolve around the thousands of soldiers who are believed to be still loyal to the LNA but have to keep their allegiances secret because they live in Fajr-controlled towns. (A Libyan friend in that situation introduced me to Col. Madi online.) If you were rash enough to support the Tobruk government, you’d likely get your house burned down for your pains, and that’s the only asset most Libyans possess.

As these numbers suggest, everything military in Libya, a nation of roughly 6 million people, happens on a Lilliputian scale by American standards. Many former combatants estimate that fewer than 10,000 Libyans actually fought in the revolution against Gaddafi and that may be generous.

The problem is that tens of thousands of unemployed young men have joined the government-funded militias that have sprung up since then. One teenager I know has his own truck-mounted KPV 14.5mm heavy machine gun. Luckily he’s a good kid. Spending on these militias and their weapons has crowded out just about everything else, to the extent that Libyan hospitals now lack basic supplies. The country has committed suicide by militia.

Where will these well-paid, well-armed, mainly youthful Islamist militias that currently run rampant in Tripoli go if they are ousted?

Madi says “they must go to the borders.” Libya’s frontiers have been largely unpoliced for years now, allowing not only the headline-grabbing trafficking in subSaharan Africans en route to Europe, but the smuggling of drugs, alcohol, weapons and terrorists. The problem is that no one in Libya is very keen on being posted to a desolate desert border crossing. The militia members in Tripoli will almost surely say, “Why should I leave to go to the borders? Why can’t the LNA go there?”

And perhaps more importantly, what will make the militia commanders—who have been looting the national wealth for years—leave the big money institutions of Libya in Tripoli like the National Oil Company and Central Bank to the new government? What will make strongman Nuri Abu Sahmein, the president of the current regime in Tripoli, leave?

Here Col. Idris Madi allowed himself a small smile.

“This is a battle,” he said. “A three-part battle. Part is about dialogue, part is about new choices, and part is fighting. I think he will go peacefully. The Libyan people do not accept political Islam.”

He’s right, if election results are any guide. But Libya’s Islamists have not respected electoral results. How about Abdulhakim Belhaj, the ex-Libyan Islamic Fighting Group fighter whose political party failed to secure even one seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections, but whose fighters were among those who seized Tripoli in August 2014? Is there a role for him in the future?

“His reputation is very bad,” said Madi. “If it was good, he would have been elected. “

I asked about demands that Belhaj, Abu Sahmein and others be tried for war crimes in the Hague, or in Libya.

Madi said Libyans, “Don’t want to go for accountability at this stage. We need to get the country stable.” He went on to say, “It was a big mistake to disband the Libyan National Army similar to what happened in Iraq. This was because the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to build an army of its own.”

Like most Libyans, even military professionals, Madi emphasizes dialogue. Libyans settle most matters by talking, even in war. One commander I know was on his mobile phone to his opposite number during a “small war” between the Amazigh town of Zwara and its Arab neighbors in the spring of 2012.

Will there be a battle for Tripoli?

“No, I don’t think so. Except small fights in certain areas. There is another threat, which is ISIS.”

But it’s a barely concealed secret that many of the Islamists are willing to tolerate ISIS when it suits them. The colonel is quick to say, “The Fajr government is very weak and has other agendas. The Fajr Libya government includes ISIS, especially in Sabratha. Sometimes they fight ISIS, when it affects their interest, and other times they include ISIS or the LIFG or Ansar al Shariah. “

I asked Col. Madi about a basic logistical issue: the road between Tripoli and Tunisia has been blocked for months by fighting between rival Fajr militias. The condition has come to seem so permanent that an air taxi service now brings people from the furthest west town, Zwara, to Tripoli, and ancient Fajr helicopters ferry people back and forth to Sabratha, just east of Zwara and the reputed home to a sizeable ISIS contingent.

Madi seemed to think that the rival militias would stop fighting in the face of the LNA, and—again—that the real fight would be with ISIS.

The colonel denied that any Zintan militias will be allowed to operate as such in the effort to seat the GNA in Tripoli. But another Zintan source said that he has no doubt that some of the Zintan militia will participate in any operation in Tripoli, and that while Col. Madi has the highest formal military rank in the LNA in the West, he is not the strongest anti-Fajr commander in the West.

That title belongs to Osama Al Juwaili, leader of the military council of Zintan, a former defense minister of Libya circa 2012, who has connections with Misrata’s powerful Halbous and al Mahjoub brigades, currently occupying Tripoli. Supposedly Juwaili supports the Government of National Accord.

Another Zintan heavyweight is Emad Trabelsi, commander of the As-Sawaiq brigade of Zintan, which has between 300 and 1200 men. As-Sawaiq is rumored to be among the Zintan militias that will enter Tripoli. Some of the Misrata brigades in Tripoli have forged agreements with the Zintan brigades to allow a peaceful entry into Tripoli since the Misrata-Tripoli Islamist alliance has itself fractured, like everything else.

I asked Colonel Madi’s translator, another native Zintani, if there were big celebrations for the anniversary of the February 17 Revolution. (The first demonstrations began with a timid lawyers’ protest in Benghazi on Feb. 15, 2011, and picked up steam nationwide from there.) But this being Libya, it turned out that Zintan had celebrated the anniversary of the revolution on February 16, when the rebellion was said to have begun there.

This is an excellent example of both the beauty and the tragedy of Libya.

It’s a country of free, proud and by-and-large reasonably well-governed city states, where individuals also consider themselves free and equal, paying no deference to birth, rank, or position. (Wealth is another matter). Yet these city states cannot agree on when to celebrate their revolution, much less on a national government, and somehow all this theoretical freedom results in chaos, which doesn’t allow anyone real freedom, like the freedom to drive the coast road from Tripoli to Tunisia, or from Zintan to Tripoli, without dire consequences, or the freedom to not be kidnapped, or assassinated.

Zintan is a stark, bordering-on-grim place, though it has its own beauty, and while the Zintanis criticize the Tripoli militias for embracing political Islam or worse, the town is extremely. Women do not drive there, and indeed are almost never seen in the streets. The translator ended our talk by remarking wistfully that since he left his graduate program in electrical engineering in the U.S., his life has stagnated.

“I can’t even go to Tripoli. I’ve been stuck in Zintan for two years. When you mentioned going to the gym, I remembered so much about the United States. There is nothing to do here.”

It’s a common sentiment. Libya is not Afghanistan; it’s a wealthy oil state on the Mediterranean. Most Libyans have some experience of the world outside, and want to be part of it. The first step back to being a normal country would be the seating of the GNA in Tripoli. But at the moment, no one can predict when that day will come.