We saw yesterday how the misinterpreted ‘lessons’ of international interventionism from the Bosnia experience led to the notion of ‘liberal imperialism’ that ultimately came unstuck in Iraq, only to be (somewhat) saved by a ‘surge’ in military effort. However, according to author Rory Stewart, even that model failed in Afghanistan, leaving a chaotic and counter productive situation. Although the international community had some considerable success early on in the campaign—promoting development and driving Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, ultimately killing nearly all its senior leadership—the attempt to transform the country has failed. Projects that depend on foreign technical expertise and which can be executed from Kabul or foreign capitals have tended to be successful, but the international community has floundered when confronted by the concrete realities—and forms of resistance—shaping Afghan rural life. Stewart demonstrates that before 2011 the international community remained isolated from concrete realities, habitually optimistic about Western capability, and devoted to abstract forms of modern expertise shrouded in a jargon so dense they were difficult to interpret, let alone translate. Stewart condemns the tendency to rely on a culture of consultancy as opposed to country experts, which he argues is as pronounced within the British Foreign Office as the US government and the United Nations.
Echoing George Orwell’s classic analysis of ‘Politics and the English Language’, Stewart detonates the buzz-talk that has permeated the international community’s intervention in Afghanistan. Casting doubt on the use of concepts such as the ‘rule of law’ and ‘ungoverned spaces’, ‘disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration’ and the ‘legitimate monopoly on the use of violence’, Stewart demonstrates that the international community’s lofty abstractions were so difficult to apply to rural Afghan society that it was almost impossible to know when they were failing. This made space for absurd foreign projects and liberated policymakers from uncomfortable realities, allowing them to sketch indistinct utopias in a language so unexceptional and morally appealing it captivated Norwegian aid agencies and Delta Force alike. Lofty abstractions lacking concrete definitions could be arranged in every conceivable sequence, allowing members of the foreign intervention to justify almost any policy they pleased. The strategy was an abstraction but the war effort grew, and grew.
The final sections of Stewart’s essay accounts for his failed attempt as an external policy advisor to the US and UK Governments to prevent the ‘surge’ of 2009. Driving home themes explored earlier on his essay, Stewart castigates the notion that ‘failure was not an option’ in Afghanistan, in the process downplaying the international community’s fear of Afghanistan, fear of Afghanistan’s effect on its neighbours, and fear for Western credibility more generally. Rather than wading deeper into the Afghan quagmire, Stewart hoped that Obama would reduce the international presence by announcing plans for a long-term light-footprint, limiting the international community’s focus to development and counter-terrorism.
The end of Stewart’s piece is pessimistic. In January 2009, Stewart recalls a late night call from Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the presidential Special Adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke, who served in Vietnam and knew more about interventions than most, invited Stewart to sit next to Secretary of State Clinton at a forthcoming dinner. ‘Say exactly what you think’, he told Stewart. ‘If you don’t, I never, ever want to hear you criticize the policy again’. Stewart suspected that Holbrooke had accepted the truth of his position. Soon after, Obama announced a ‘surge’. If anyone, Stewart argues, had the self-confidence, the stubbornness, the experience, and the intelligence to resist the Afghan surge, it was Holbrooke. Under his leadership, the war grew to 150,000 troops and $130 billion of annual expenditure. No ‘lessons’ had been learnt.
Stewart and Knaus wrote their essays in the hope that the international community might find a way of avoiding the horrors of both over-intervention and non-intervention; of Rwanda as well as Iraq. Despite his depressingly frank analysis of the Afghan War, Stewart concludes his essay by returning to that hope, asking whether or not we can develop a new approach to intervention that avoids the horrors of Iraq and the absurdity of Afghanistan? Knaus simply asks whether or not intervention can work. He provides a confident ‘yes’, arguing that so long as the international community pursues a policy of ‘principled incrementalism’—proceeding with a sense of purpose, treading carefully, and fearing the consequences of its mistakes—it has the capacity to achieve good humanitarian outcomes, recalling Bosnia’s success.
The book is structured such that Knaus has the last word; it should have gone to Stewart instead. Unwilling to assume that the international community can simply ‘learn’ from its mistakes, Stewart calls for a wide-ranging reform of the community of 21st century interveners. In the 19th century, he argues, European governments introduced reforms to overcome the problems of 18th century imperial administrators: problems of amateurism, nepotism, and corruption. This was accomplished with concrete measures: professionalisation of those involved, legal requirements that the majority of those controlling policy had served a posting in the country for which they were responsible, and rules ensuring the most senior posts in a country went to people with long experience on the ground. Career structures rewarded long experience in-country and detailed ideographic knowledge. The argument isn’t, of course, that we should recruit or attempt to train people with a Victorian outlook. Instead, Stewart suggests we draw on their example to target the diseases afflicting today’s interventions: deep isolation, habitual optimism, and lofty abstractions, instilling instead a spirit of ‘passionate moderation’.
Stewart sums up his position in a neat dictum: we can achieve ‘much more than we fear but much less than we pretend’. If we neglect those realities, he argues that interventions will become more ‘ill-informed and more dangerous’. Reflecting on Afghanistan, where a precipitous withdrawal of the entire international community might yet follow on from the 2009 ‘surge’, one hopes it isn’t too late.
William Clegg is an ASPI alumnus and is currently a graduate student in history at the University of Oxford. This review originally appeared in the Balliol College publication Floreat Domus. Image courtesy of Flickr user United States Marine Corps Official Page.