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Review of "CAN INTERVENTION WORK?" by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus
Published by W.W.Norton and Company, New York/London, 2001.
Review published in The Spectator, October 15, 2011

This is a book for our times, a pair of linked essays, the first on the troubled decade of western intervention in Afghanistan (by Rory Stewart) followed by the success story of the ten years of western intervention in Bosnia (by Gerald Knaus). The two authors write not for cash, authorial glory or to secure a professorial chair, but with a tangible sense of desperation. Year on year, over the last decade, the leaders of the West have immersed us ever deeper in "sorting out" Afghanistan. They do this from the best possible motives - a sense of obligation and moral decency - but also of fear and with a blinding hubris and historical ignorance. As a result our soldiers and our treasuries bleed, and so, to a much, much greater extent, do the poor, war-devastated people of Afghanistan. But every year there is talk of a fresh new strategy, which requires bigger budgets and another twenty thousand troops.

One of the problems is the successful UN operation in Bosnia (from 1995) which established the current belief in a scientific liberal-interventionism. With one million refugees safely returned to their homes, 64 war-criminals brought to justice, and three rival militia armies slowly disbanded with not a single US soldier sent home in a body-bag, it was indeed an extraordinarily successful mission. But the devil, whether in Afghanistan or in Bosnia is in the detail, and Gerald Knaus reveals to us what a unique instance Bosnia was. There was no oil, no strategic need, no super-power rivalry. The US government was a reluctant rather than an insistent peacemaker, Serbia was exhausted, Croatia triumphantly cautious and the Bosniaks had just won the sympathy of the world by enduring the shelling of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica. On top of that there was the very juicy carrot of membership of the European Union on offer to make ending the civil war an attractive option.

Both Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus know that intervention can work extremely well, when there is a narrow enough time-scale and a specific technical task. Preventing a massacre, rescuing a population from famine, flying in high-level health care, even fixing a Central Bank can be done by flown-in foreigners with superlative efficiency. The events in Libya are too recent to be covered by this book, but dove-tail neatly with their concept of advance planning, local allies, an urgent need, speed and the lightest possible footprint.

But they are both adamant that "nation-building under fire", that which is currently being attempted in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is not possible, not even for the USA. Part of the problem is time. Soldiers and diplomats are sent in for risibly short tours of duty, but from our imperial past we know full that success depends on the sort of vital hands-on knowledge of language, culture and local kinship ties which can only be learned over decades, sometimes generations. Another related problem is isolation, living in a "green zone" safe haven, as the experts and the garrisons do, means they know nothing of the realities of village or street life. These compounds are populated by a migrating tribe of international aid-experts (typically under-35-year-old, postgraduate intellectuals) who deal in concepts of "governance" and "state-building", strict accountability and gender issues that look inevitable, contemporary and sharp at Harvard or Cambridge, but which cannot be translated into things that matter on the ground.

Rory Stewart reminds us that in a recent recruitment drive, 92 out of 100 Afghan police recruits could not write their names or record numbers. He tells the story of a western rule-of-law consultant who is sent out to advise the Afghan judiciary (at 1.5 $ million a year including the cost of his security staff). Yet the local courts are only ever used for passport applications while 85% of Afghans take their cases to the local Taliban commanders who give justice quickly, cheaply, fluently and effectively under a tree.

But even if the western intervention in Afghanistan was to be manned by linguistically fluent, long-term careerists, living and working amongst the people they wish to protect, there are still insuperable problems. The very presence of foreign bases and the disproportionate scale of the aid-budgets, undermine the very authority of the state they are meant to be nurturing. For instance in just one aid programe, the training of a new Afghan army, this out-spends the entire Afghan government revenue by 14 to 1. The "interveners" are inevitably seen to be an army of occupation whilst the locals who oppose them are seen as heroes defending religion, nation and people.

As one senior US officer confessed at the end of his tour of duty 'I am undeniably proud of my service" yet he also realised that his combat presence had helped create "what has become one of the most violent and unstable valleys in Afghanistan."

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