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Can Intervention Work? by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus: book review

It is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention. Mary Kaldor agrees, while insisting on distinguishing between genuine humanitarian interventions and the War on Terror.

Mary Kaldor
19 October 2011

This book is actually two essays about intervention. One, by Rory Stewart, is about the failure of the intervention in Afghanistan and the reasons for the failure. And one by Gerald Knaus is about the success of intervention in Bosnia and about the reasons for that success which he considers different from what is usually claimed. Both the essays are immensely readable, erudite, and stimulating. Both draw on their experience as practitioners and scholars, and, particularly in Stewart’s essay, they conjure up people and places so as to give you a feel for what they are writing about.

Broadly, I agree with their assessment, although I am not convinced that Bosnia is quite as much a success as Knaus claims. And I also agree with their starting point ‘that it is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention; that there is still a possibility of avoiding the horrors not only of Iraq but also Rwanda; and that there is a good way of approaching intervention that can be good for us and good for the country concerned.’ (p.xvi)

Cultural difference

Rory Stewart explains the failure in Afghanistan largely in terms of culture – the combination of extraordinary ignorance of the intervening forces about Afghanistan and extraordinary arrogance about what can be achieved.  He describes the widespread lack of understanding of culture and language in Afghanistan, the short-termism, the obsession with security that keeps the outsiders isolated from society, the excessive technocratic and bureaucratic solutions, the jargon of state-building and good governance and gender sensitivity – the ‘juggernaut of international abstraction.’

He tells us how every new commander dismisses the strategy of his predecessor and announces a new strategy and how every year is supposed to be decisive and never is and how no one is ever called to account. ‘The failure was predetermined by modern western culture – by attitudes and worldviews of which the policy elite would have been hardly conscious.  These included a materialist worldview whose gods were technology and progress, which denied the reality of cultural difference and which was driven by a bizarre optimism.’ (p.59) 

Disagreeing about success 

Knaus dismisses the common western explanations for success in Bosnia that have to do  with a combination of  successful state-building and strong arm tactics from above in dealing with ‘spoilers’, particularly by the Office of the High Representative. Rather he emphasises two factors -  pressure from below from the Bosnians themselves, especially the displaced persons, and the role of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). 

I do not disagree with these analyses but I think there is a more important difference between the two interventions. The intervention in Bosnia was a humanitarian intervention. The motivation was to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing and it was pushed by the media and civil society all over Europe, especially. Thousands of people collected humanitarian assistance, signed petitions, joined humanitarian convoys and campaigned publicly against the atrocities in Bosnia. Organisations like Warchild (UK) or People in Need (Czech republic) were invented during the war. I was involved in a campaign for safe havens where we sent 300,000 post cards to European leaders. Links between civil society groups in Europe, both East and West, and local peace and human rights groups in Bosnia generated a raft of proposals for an international protectorate, for safe havens and humanitarian corridors, for a war crimes tribunal, for no fly zones, or for international administrations in Sarajevo and Mostar, many of which were adopted in the afterglow of the end of communism, even if they were never implemented effectively.

That mood affected the way the post-Dayton intervention functioned. Public mobilisation was not sustained, but NGOs like those for which Knaus worked – the International Crisis Group or the European Stability Initiative – were the outcome of that mood. While I agree very much about the importance of the pressures from the displaced persons themselves, I think the readiness to respond came out of the humanitarian discourse constructed during the war. 

Kill or capture – a deeper failing

In contrast, the intervention in Afghanistan was part of the War on Terror and has always been justified as such even if humanitarian concerns have edged their way into the story. The aim was always the defeat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  I agree with most of Stewart’s arguments. But I think a more salient explanation for the failure has to do with the fact that the bumbling state-building efforts were always seen as merely a means to the end of defeating America’s enemies. They were consistently subverted by the obsession with the War on Terror and the continued reliance on predatory commanders who took part in the pursuit of the Taliban. Knaus is right that the role of the ICTY was extremely important in Bosnia. That there was nothing equivalent in Afghanistan was due to the fact that the west was allied to war criminals.  Even though successive generals emphasised stabilisation and the security of Afghans, they were judged, at least in the United States, by how well they were doing in eliminating Al Qaeda.  The metrics, as the jargon goes, were about ‘kill or capture’. And as happened in Vietnam, the greater the offensives against the Taliban, the more the resistance has grown.

Who you talk to is key

I also would qualify Stewart’s point about culture. The problems of the interveners that made things worse were not just ignorance of culture and language but ignorance of politics and society. Stressing culture can lead to an over emphasis on tradition or on tribal and ethnic difference, which is often exploited and manipulated by the entrepreneurs of violence. After three decades of war, Afghanistan is a profoundly traumatised society. Forty per cent of the population has been uprooted. There has a dramatic forced urbanisation. Traditional elders have been replaced by younger commanders, who have ‘reinvented’ tradition in often brutal and extremist ways. The experience of being abroad and the widespread use of mobile phones mean that Afghans are often much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about how the world works than is often assumed.

Stewart and Knaus say their recipes for intervention to work are ‘passionate moderation’ and ‘principled incrementalism’ respectively. My recipe is more concrete. First the goal has to be humanitarian and it has to be about protecting people and saving lives. Secondly the interveners need to talk not just to international think tanks and NGOs or to the men with guns, they need to talk to civil society more broadly understood as urban intellectuals, grass roots groups, community organisations, elders, religious leaders, women and youth groups, teachers, and doctors - to learn their analyses of the situations and their ideas about what needs to be done. In both Bosnia and Afghanistan, the people I talk to define civil society not in terms of associations or NGOs but as those who care about the public as opposed to the private interest, those who are concerned about the future of Afghanistan or Bosnia as a whole, rather than about sectarian or materialist concerns. In the end, these are the only people who can build legitimate political authority. 

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