Quotes from the book "Can Intervention Work" (2011)

Can intervention work?. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011


How to intervene

In these essays we are not interested in whether we have an abstract moral right or even duty to intervene, but whether and how to intervene in a particular country at a particular time

The question of whether and how to intervene in Libya or Afghanistan is not fundamentally a question of moral philosophy. It is not a question of what we ought to do but what we can: of understanding the limits of Western institutions in the twenty-first century and of giving a credible account of the specific context of a particular intervention.

(p. xiii)

U.S. troops in Bosnia in 1996. Photo: Wired
U.S. troops in Bosnia in 1996. Photo: Wired


Ghosts of the 1990s

One lesson the international community learned in the early 1990s is that there is a high price, in human, moral, and strategic terms, of not attempting to intervene when this seems within our power in the face of mass atrocities.

People are still haunted by the ghosts of Rwanda and Srebrenica. In 1998 Kofi Annan evoked the trauma of Rwanda as a concrete illustration of the horrors of non-intervention, actions for which he—as head of UN peacekeeping—was also responsible at the time:

"The experience of Rwanda in 1994 [was] a terrible demonstration of what can happen when there is no intervention, or at least none in the crucial early weeks of a crisis. General Dallaire, the commander of the UN mission, has indicated that with a force of even modest size and means he could have prevented much of the killing. Indeed he has said that 5,000 peacekeepers could have saved 500,000 lives."

(p. 189)

Skulls of genocide victims. Photo: Shared Humanity Roméo Dallaire, commander of UN forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
Skulls of genocide victims. Photo: Shared Humanity – Roméo Dallaire, commander of UN forces in Rwanda
during the 1994 genocide. Photo: University of Pennsylvania Amnesty International Chapter


The obscenity of the Bosnian war

David Rieff, a young reporter in the Balkans in the 1990s, argued that what made Bosnia a moral disaster was the fact that this tragedy could so easily have been prevented: "the unnecessary defeat, the defeat that could have been averted, the genocide that need not have taken place, or, once it had begun, could have been cut short, are things to which it is obscene to be reconciled."

However, most military experts and politicians cautioned otherwise. Nothing short of a full-scale invasion with hundreds of thousands of ground troops would make a difference in a place like Bosnia, they argued.

(p. 104)

Newsweek cover 1992 Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Photo: FAQGO.com
Newsweek cover 1992 – Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Photo: FAQGO.com


Clinton and American prudence in 1995

Once all of the parties had signed on to the Dayton Peace Agreement, President Clinton made his plea to the U.S. public in November 1995 to support the deployment of twenty thousand U.S. troops—an essential part of the agreement. In affirming a bounded commitment by the United States, this speech spelled out the doctrine of limited humanitarian intervention. Clinton started from the premise of limited American power:

"Let me say at the outset America's role will not be about fighting a war. It will be about helping the people of Bosnia to secure their own peace agreement. Our mission will be limited, focused, and under the command of an American general. … Our troops will make sure that each side withdraws its forces behind the front lines and keeps them there. They will maintain the cease-fire to prevent the war from accidentally starting again."

(p. 115)

Bill Clinton visiting U.S. troops at Tuzla Air Base in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1996.
Bill Clinton visiting U.S. troops at Tuzla Air Base in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1996.
Photo: SPC Kyle Davis/U.S. Department of Defense


Bosnia as a success

In 2006, Paddy Ashdown, the longest-serving (May 2002–January 2006) High Representative in postwar Bosnia and as such the leading international official in the country, appeared before the House of Lords in London. He spoke about the transformation in Bosnia, the future of the Balkans, and the achievements of a peace-building mission that had already lasted more than a decade. He placed this description of Bosnia in a wider European context:

"A million refugees returned. That has not happened in 35 years. The refugees I saw driven out of their homes in Belfast [Northern Ireland] when I was a young soldier, marching into the city in 1969 have not returned. There is complete freedom of movement in Bosnia. That has not happened in Cyprus, 25 years after the Cyprus peace conference. Elections are held absolutely peacefully under the aegis of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and to the highest international standards. That does not happen in the Basque country of Spain after 25 years of problems there. It is a remarkable success story."

The return of over one million displaced persons and refugees to destroyed villages throughout the whole territory of Bosnia was not the only unexpected, achievement of the postwar intervention, however. So was the large-scale restitution of assets (more than two hundred thousand residential properties were restored to displaced persons by 2004), a process without precedent in the history of international peace-building.

So was the almost complete demilitarization of postwar Bosnia. As Richard Holbrooke wrote in an article that appeared in April 2008, instead of having three armies controlled by three ethnic groups there was now "a single command structure and a single state army, built along NATO lines."

(p. 125)

Richard Holbrooke. Photo: Center for American Progress Paddy Ashdown. Photo: BH-News
Richard Holbrooke. Photo: Center for American Progress – Paddy Ashdown. Photo: BH-News


RAND and the secret of success

The Rand Corporations Beginner's Guide to Nation-building presents the problem of intervention in the form of a decision tree.

First, intervening authorities must determine "how extensively to reorder the targeted society." Policy-makers face a choice between "co-option" (under which the intervening authorities try to work within existing institutions) and "deconstruction" (where the intervening authorities "first dismantle an existing state apparatus and then build a new one"). The choice made determines "how large a pool of spoilers the intervention will create," which in turn establishes "how large a commitment of personnel and money will be needed to deter or suppress the resultant resistance."

Key to success in all cases is a good plan matching ends with means. Ideally, policy-makers are presented with an intervention menu that shows different options, each carrying a price tag.

(p. 131)

James Dobbins. Photo: RAND RAND Corporation building in Washington DC. Photo: RAND
James Dobbins. Photo: RAND – RAND Corporation building in Washington DC. Photo: RAND


Paddy Ashdown, the liberal imperialist

The key to any success was "to go in hard from the start" and to establish the rule of law "even if you have to do that quite brutally in the early days by martial law, until your police forces arrive." To be able to do so, Ashdown claimed, required the intervener to enjoy draconian executive powers …

Finally, Ashdown noted, it is pointless to give time lines for withdrawal. To be successful, nation-building requires an open-ended commitment. This, Ashdown concluded, was his final lesson and "perhaps the most important: avoid setting deadlines and settle in for the long haul. Peace-keeping needs to be measured not in months but decades."

(p. 149)

Paddy Ashdown. Photo: BH-News "Swords And Ploughshares: Bringing Peace to the 21st Century"
Paddy Ashdown. Photo: Unknown – "Swords And Ploughshares: Bringing Peace to the 21st Century"


Imperial nostalgia

In 2004 British historian Niall Ferguson published a book titled Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. It captured the spirit of an era that saw a succession of seemingly effortless U.S. military victories in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq (2003). What the British Empire had demonstrated, Ferguson wrote, is that "empire is a form of international government that can work—and and not just for the benefit of the ruling power."

(p. 153)

Niall Ferguson. Photo: Political Economy Research Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, posing with his wife, near Hyderabad in 1902. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Niall Ferguson. Photo: Political Economy Research – Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, posing with his wife,
near Hyderabad in 1902. Photo: Wikipedia Commons


The elusive "sustainable solution"

… the international community was able to implement successful developmental, humanitarian, and commercial projects in Afghanistan. It did many of them within a few months of the intervention (though it still boasted of them years later). It even met its initial counter-terrorism goals, by driving Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan, in 2001; and then over the next nine years killing or capturing almost every senior member of the Al Qaeda leadership, including bin Laden himself.

But the international community was not satisfied with development and counter-terrorism operations. It wanted "a sustainable solution."

(p. 27)

US troops in Afghanistan in 2003. Photo: Wikipedia Commons Afghan girls in school. Photo: imagine2050
US troops in Afghanistan in 2003. Photo: Wikipedia Commons – Afghan girls in school. Photo: imagine2050


Ashraf Ghani, state builder

There was no doubting his faith: that if allowed to implement his new strategy with the right resources, he could deliver a decisive success. He drew comparisons with the speed of development in Dubai and Singapore, reminded me that Korea had been poorer than Afghanistan in 1950, and observed in passing that Afghanistan could be turned into the insurance capital of Central Asia in seven years.

Ashraf's views were not those of an eccentric academic: he was perhaps the most influential Afghan voice of the time, and as the minister of finance he shaped the new international theory, through a dozen daily meetings, through strategic plans, with academic papers and consultancy reports, in op-eds and international seminars, with charm, mystification, hard statistics, and blazing arguments. And the international community made a start at putting some of his ideas into practice.

In April 2004, largely under the guidance of Ashraf Ghani, seven hundred delegates from fifty-two countries, including the whole of the European Union, the G-8, and NATO, met in Berlin to sign on to a strategy largely of his devising.

(p. 33)

Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The jargon of state building

"… the first comprehensive formal statement of the Afghan government, presented in Berlin in 2004. This document, entitled "Securing Afghanistan's Future," reflected the work of "over a hundred international experts" nearly three years after the invasion … Among the sixty-nine separate tables and charts in this 137- page plan, including ones on "predicted teledensity" and "status and accomplishment, national police and law enforcement," the following words did not appear: Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance, and consent."

(p. 36)

"Securing Afghanistan's Future"
"Securing Afghanistan's Future"


Holbrooke's call

Richard Holbrooke called me in January 2009. It was after midnight—although we were both in Washington, D.C. He had been Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for a week, and he wanted to quiz me on Afghanistan.

After each reply, Holbrooke paused and then—just as I suspected he was texting someone else—growled, "Okay, so what do we do?" "How can you prove that?" "What do we do about Pakistan? Iran? Russia? Karzai?"

We spoke for an hour. Then he said, "You've lost your argument against the seventeen-thousand- troop increase. But Petraeus is asking for another forty thousand in September, and if you think that's wrong, you should say so."

(p. 87)

Richard Holbrooke in Afghanistan. Photo: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan
Richard Holbrooke in Afghanistan. Photo: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan


Nation building under fire

The central claim of the planning school is that missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are feasible because nation-building has been done before. In reality, however, leaving aside Vietnam, there are no recent historical examples of U.S.-led "nation building under fire"that could help provide a scientific basis for generalizations about the necessary inputs.

A realistic reading of "historical experience" would have to conclude, much more modestly, that neither the United States nor its allies, nor the United Nations or any other international organization, has an understanding of how to "build a generic nation," or how many soldiers it takes to pacify a generic "hostile society," or how much money is needed to buy loyalty or bring about development.

(p. 140)

U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1965. Photo: Wikia U.S. troops in Iraq in2006. Photo: electionsmeter
U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1965. Photo: Wikia – U.S. troops in Iraq in2006. Photo: electionsmeter


What we can really do

There is encouraging evidence that limited missions in support of peace agreements and with sufficient resources can produce a good result. If the Bosnia intervention is judged by whether it led to the successful implementation of the provisions of the Dayton Peace Agreement, and not by the criteria of liberal imperialist open-ended state-building, it certainly qualifies as a success.

When missions end, politics, political conflicts, will continue. To pretend that this can be prevented by outsiders forever, irrespective of the wisdom of local actors, is to make the case for empire, not humanitarian interventions.

(p. 192)

Refugee returnee family. Photo: UNHCR
Refugee returnee family. Photo: UNHCR

Neither state-building, nor counterinsurgency, nor "inputs," nor leadership, nor any other formula, fixed theory, or doctrine can therefore guarantee success. RAND's proposal that there is a standard formula that can generate a fixed proportion of troops, police, and money for a "hypothetical country with a population of 5 million" is absurd.

The important questions cannot be framed in hypotheses because they are "Which country exactly? And when? And why? And who?"

(p. xxiv)

NATO forces entering Kosovo in June 1998. Photo: kosova.org
NATO soldiers intervening in Kosovo. Photo: kosova.org