August 23rd, 2011
12:30 PM ET

Can intervention work?

Author Rory Stewart and political economic Gerald Knaus examine the impact of large-scale international interventions from Kosovo to Afghanistan in their new book, Can Intervention Work?  Their bottom line: The international community needs to be much more humble about what it can accomplish in terms of state-building abroad.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

The difficulty is to show people how intervention—with its elaborate theory, intricate rituals, astonishing sacrifices and expenditure; its courage and grandeur and fantasy—can often resemble the religion of the Aztecs or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; to show how bad intervention can be: how far more absurd, rotten, counterproductive than any satirist could suggest or caricaturist portray. And that even when all the leaders have recognized that a policy is not working, how impossible it often seems for them to organize withdrawal.

An incremental approach may seem simply common sense. But overconfident policy- makers continue to be seduced repeatedly by the belief in the magic powers of planning, resources, and charismatic leadership. Intervention may be a necessary, indispensable ingredient of the international system. It is certainly capable, as in the Balkans, of doing good. And yet how easily it falls into excess.

The following is an excerpt from Rory Stewart’s essay in Can Intervention Work?

“The rule of law” was the last of the ten functions of the state that underpinned the 2004 strategy on Afghanistan. The first was “the legitimate monopoly on the use of violence.” This was a phrase used by the early-twentieth-century sociologist max Weber to explain the importance of centralized armies to nation-states in Western Europe in the seventeenth century. But Weber was now firmly in Afghanistan. A report commissioned by the UK government cited him in 2003.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post, “Max Weber once defined a state as that entity that has a monopoly of the legitimate use of force in the country. In Afghanistan, the state has no such monopoly. Winding down militias is the only path to that goal.”

But the programs that attempted to realize Weber’s description were often not simply surreal but reprehensible. I remember, for example, in August 2004, watching some American soldiers leading a column of the Afghan army into Ghor, in the central highlands. Their aim was “DDR,” to “disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate” the militia of Ahmad morghabi, a key commander in the province.

Ahmad had been armed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan to fight  the Soviets in the 1980s. In 2001, he had again become an ally of the international community in the fight against the Taliban, and his militia group had been given a formal role as “the 41st Division” of the Afghan army. Now the international community was planning to disarm him.

He had not been selected at random: he had been selected by ministers in Kabul because he was an ally of their former friend and now enemy, Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat. The militia, who would be promoted in Ahmad’s place, included that of Haji mohsin’s brother-in-law, Rais Salam Khan (who cut off ears), whose major income came from control of the central opium routes, and Governor Ibrahim malikzada (the man who apparently fed his guest to his dogs).

Human Rights Watch meanwhile had just mistakenly described Rais Salam Khan as an ally of Ismail Khan (he was a sworn enemy), and the UN had just been convinced into releasing him from jail.

I saw the U.S. soldiers resting by a landslide in the road and particularly noticed a blond man taking photographs of a beautiful young girl who was scouring cooking pots, near a round yurt. Later that afternoon the column was ambushed, two U.S. soldiers were wounded, and an A-10 “Warthog” tank-buster air- craft covered the retreat (with a thirty-millimeter cannon that can fire 3,900 depleted uranium rounds in one minute).

The villagers estimated that at least twenty Afghans were killed. This chaos was tidied up in a speech by the UN spokesman into a mission “to discuss various issues, including potential disarmament plans, with a faction that had originally been part of the 41st Division.”

Major Jon Siepmann, the U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, added that the bloody retreat conveyed “an important message that DDR here in Afghanistan is more than just talk.”

The next month, inspired in part by this action by the international community, Rais Salam Khan the ear-cutter was confident enough to attack Ismail Khan, Ahmad’s ally, in Herat and take over from Ahmad as commander of Chaghcharan.

Ismail Khan retreated to Kabul, and his supporters took to the streets and set fire to UN offices. Seven people were killed in the rioting. A senior official in the Afghan government told me this was all “a virtuous circle, away from illegitimate fiefdoms towards a legitimate central authority and a secure, stable, free, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan.”

In truth, the DDR mission against Ahmad was not just a surreal abstraction: it was a policy of imperial divide and rule, which was as foolish as it was morally disturbing. It was directed against a group previously armed and supported by the international community.

It was interfering violently with a fragile microsystem of vendettas in a distant province, and destabilizing the region around Herat, which was at the time the best-administered, most stable, and most prosperous province in the country.

In the name of disassociating itself from warlords, the international community was in fact forging public alliances with even more unpopular and cruel men at a great cost to its own legitimacy—and ultimately (since many of these men had been Taliban commanders) to its security.

Within a few years the international community was rearming militias such as Ahmad’s again. This was because it had lost confidence in the ability of the Afghan security forces to protect villages. The rearmed groups were called “local defense forces.” And the international community wanted to disarm them again a year later.

As for human rights, it is worth noting that the commander Gul Agha Sherzai, whose notorious child abuse in 1995 had been one of the major reasons for the Taliban’s early popularity, was well established by 2009 as governor of Jalalabad, where he became the toast of the international community.

Mullah Mustafa, who shot at me in 2002, continued to terrorize people on the main highway, effectively closing it to all international NGOs. (A predator drone tried to kill him in 2008 but missed and killed twenty others.) Rais Salam Khan, the ear-cutter whom the international community had brought back to power, was finally killed in Barra Khana not by the international community but by a rival, in December 2009.

His brother-in-law Haji mohsin remained the sole power in Kamenj. In 2002, when I walked safely alone as a foreigner from Herat to Chaghcharan, there was no Taliban threat in the area.

By 2011, after hundreds of billion of dollars had been spent on security and state-building, the Taliban operated freely around Herat and it would have been almost suicidal to walk the route again.

But the same abstraction that doomed the international community’s projects to failure also prevented it from recognizing its failure. Lofty abstractions such as “ungoverned space,” “the rule of law,” and “the legitimate monopoly on the use of violence” are so difficult to apply to an Afghan village that it was almost impossible to know when they were failing. And since it had perhaps not yet succeeded (what after all would success look like?), the international community sent in more money and more troops and more plans.

Nowhere was this tendency clearer than with the military. Each new general in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2011 suggested that the situation he had inherited was dismal; implied that this was because his predecessor had had the wrong resources or strategy; and asserted that he now had the resources, strategy, and leadership to deliver a decisive year.

General Karl Eikenberry, whom Richard Holbrooke supported to be the new ambassador in Afghanistan, had served there before. In 2002, as a general in Afghanistan, he said he had inherited a position in which “the mandate was clear and it was a central task, but it is also fair to say that up until that time there had been few resources committed.”

In 2003, the new commander, General Dan McNeill, like almost all his successors, said he had inherited no strategy: “We had nothing in any book.” McNeill, however, had a new strategy, and he predicted that “most parts of the country will soon begin to realize some reasonable degree of security and stability.”

The year 2004 might be a turning point during which the United States could reduce troop numbers. His successor agreed: “Without question,” 2004 would be “a decisive year.”

In 2004, the new ISAF commander, General David Barno, said he had inherited a situation in which “there was no major planning initiated to create long-term political, social and economic stability in Afghanistan.” But he had a new strategy: “What we’re doing is moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy here in Afghanistan. That’s a fairly significant change in terms of our tactical approach out there on the ground.” General John Abizaid, his commander, thought 2005 would be a “decisive year.”

In 2005, the new commander, General Eikenberry (returning), said he inherited a situation in which “the institutions of the Afghan state remain relatively weak.” But he had a new strategy: “Our longer-term goal of strengthening good governance, the rule of law, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, and economic development.” He was confident that 2006 would be a turning point.

In 2006, the new ISAF commander, General Sir David Richards, said he had inherited a position that was “close to anarchy.” But he had a “new strategy”: “establishing bases rather than chasing militants.” ISAF doubled its presence in Afghanistan to 18,500 soldiers from thirty-seven countries, and the troops under his command increased from 9,000 to more than 33,000.

General Richards predicted that for the Taliban 2006 would be the “crunch year.”

In 2007, the new ISAF commander, General McNeill (again), had inherited a position defined by “shadows cast by former power brokers or warlords . . . lack of effective governance . . . a lack of unified effort amongst the international community and lack of effective police.” As for counter-narcotics, “We’re not trained, we’re not equipped, we don’t have the requisite number of helicopters, and we’re not manned to do it.”

He was much more cautious about giving press interviews than his predecessor, so it is WikiLeaks that confirmed his private views in a confidential U.S. telegram: [McNeill] was particularly dismayed by the British effort. They had made a mess of things in Helmand, their tactics were wrong, and the deal that London cut on Musa Qala had failed. That agreement opened the door to narco-traffickers in that area, and now it was impossible to tell the difference between the traffickers and the insurgents. The British could do a lot more, he said, and should, because they have the biggest stake.

But the general had a new strategy, which included, it seemed, a shift to a more “kinetic strategy” including aerial bombardment. The United States doubled the number of its ground troops in Afghanistan. Norwegian Foreign minister Espen Barth Eide predicted that 2007 would be “a decisive year.”

In 2008, the new ISAF commander, General David McKiernan, said he had inherited a position in which “we are seeing an increase in violence . . . there are unacceptable levels of corruption,” and the Afghan government “is ineffective in many areas of Afghanistan.”  But he had a new strategy. In his Joint campaign Plan of 2008, he introduced more counterinsurgency terminology (as opposed to the previous “stability” strategy).

“The fact is that we are at war in Afghanistan. It’s not peace- keeping. It’s not stability operations. It’s not humanitarian assistance. It’s war.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved the deployment of a further 3,200 marines to southern Afghanistan, bringing the total number of troops during 2008 to 50,000. Canadian major General Bernard S. Champoux predicted 2008 would “be a decisive year.”

Richard Holbrooke was not impressed in 2009 by the strategy or the resources that had preceded his arrival. Shortly after Holbrooke took office as the presidential Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, General McKiernan was fired. “From a military perspective, we can and must do better,” Defense Secretary Gates said. And Holbrooke’s new team brought “a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador.”

President Obama had already approved the deployment of a further 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. In 2009, the new ISAF commander, General Stanley Mcchrystal, talked about the situation he had inherited in terms of “resilient and growing insurgency . . . weakness of Afghan government institutions.” He unveiled his comprehensive assessment, stating, “The new strategy will improve effectiveness through better application of existing assets, but it also requires additional resources.” The Canadian ambassador, Ron Hoffman, predicted that 2009 would be “a decisive year.”

General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. central command, confirmed, “For the first time we will then have the tools and what’s required in place to carry out the kind of campaign that [is] necessary here with our Afghan partners.”97 In the last interview before he too, like his predecessor, was fired, General McChrystal stated, “The Taliban . . . no longer has the initiative. . . . We are knee-deep in the decisive year.”

In 2010, the new ISAF commander, General Petraeus, inherited a position characterized by insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiking to record levels, violence metastasizing to previously stable areas, and the country’s president undercutting anti-corruption units backed by Washington. But Petraeus had a new strategy, which involved moving back to a more kinetic approach (combined with counterinsurgency).

President Obama had already agreed to send 30,000 additional troops, and troop levels reached almost 150,000. Both the NATO secretary-general and the UK foreign secretary, David miliband, predicted that 2010 would be “a decisive year.”

Reading all of the interviews, testimonies, strategies, and reports of the ISAF commanding generals from 2002 through 2010 is to stray into the congregation for an astonishing chanted liturgy. Year after year, those leading the ceremony condemned the demons of narcotics and corrupt government and reaffirmed the goals of state-building and counterinsurgency. Different commanders heralded new approaches in their ceaseless struggle to empower district or central officials, build up local defense forces, improve the police, and win the confidence of the population.

Every year from 2005, more and more money was spent, more and more troops were deployed. Each year was to prove decisive. None was. How could this have been possible? Why was no one ever exposed? Why did neither colleagues nor bosses nor the public ever challenge such sublime “cautious optimism”? How could it have been allowed to continue?

These attitudes were not confined to the center: they echoed down the hierarchy in every province. In Helmand Province every departing commander celebrated his unit’s achievements. Every new commander believed he had inherited a situation characterized by corruption, insecurity, tribal tensions, lack of local support, poor Afghan government, and lack of development.

Every commander wondered if his predecessor had not worked, perhaps unknowingly, with the wrong power-holders— the wrong subdistrict officials, the wrong policemen, the wrong tribes—and launched “unsustainable” development projects. To each commander, the problem was clearly that the previous strategy had been wrong. So each introduced a new strategy.

When the predecessor emphasized central government, the successor emphasized decentralization. Predecessors and successors oscillated between emphasis on local militias and emphasis on the national army; action on counter-narcotics and inaction on the same; spread-out isolated positions to concentrated bases; keeping distance from the population to being among them. The commanders went from “ink spots” and “Afghan Development Zones” (a concentrated approach) to remote, thinly spread forward operating bases. Musa Qala is taken and lost and taken again (so is Panjwai); troops clear, hold, leave, clear, hold, and leave again.

Governor Sher Muhammad Akhunzadeh is replaced by Governor Daud, and Governor Daud by Governor Mangal, and then there is pressure to reappoint Sher  Mham mad Akhunzadeh.

The people are disarmed, and then rearmed as local defense forces, or as arbakai, or as local police. We go from training the Afghan forces, to mentoring them, to partnering with them.

All of which heralds a decisive year. And during this time, great progress is announced: previously unsafe areas are cleared, “the bazaars are opening again,” the soldiers are building strong relations with the Afghans, our “knowledge of tribal structures” is improving, we are more “coordinated,” smarter with our deployment of money, more aware that there is “no purely military solution,” “more realistic” about our expectations.

Meanwhile, the commander presses relentlessly for more resources, and more resources are granted. In Helmand in 2005, there were 200 American soldiers. By 2010, there were over 32,000 foreign troops in the province of Helmand alone, backed by more than 30,000 Afghans. The province accounts for only 1 percent of the landmass and 3 percent of the population of Afghanistan.

Each time a commander hands over control of an area in a ceremony, he is praised by his successor for the transformation. And then almost immediately we hear the new commander privately confess that he has inherited a dismal situation but has a new strategy, requiring new resources, which will usher in a decisive year.

Britain is just one of forty-nine coalition partners and provides about 8 percent of the foreign soldiers in the country. Up and down the country, from the Spanish in Maimana to the Germans in Kunduz, from the Dutch in Uruzgan to the Lithuanians in Ghor, month by month came ripples and eddies of improvisation, hope, and despair as each separately inherited a bad situation, developed a new strategy and mission, and increased the resources.

This manic-depressive lurch meant that generals were often the very best critics of the policy that they championed, and frequently explained why they couldn’t succeed. In the words of General McChrystal in his assessment of 2009, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating.

We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency. There is a crisis of confidence among Afghans . . . that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. [Problems include] weakness of Afghan government institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a wide- spread sense of political disenfranchisement and a long-standing lack of economic opportunity.

Yet, he insisted that with more troops, all this could still be transformed. And eighteen months later, President Obama still reassured the American people:

“We are making considerable gains toward our military objec-tives. . . . [m]ore Afghans are reclaiming their communities. Targets for the growth of Afghan security forces are being met. . . . [W]e’ve dramatically increased our civilian presence, with more diplomats and development experts working alongside our troops. . . . We’re going to have to continue to stand up. . . . And we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure the security and the safety of the American people. . . . [T]hanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals.”

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Rory Stewart.

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Topics: Libya • State-building

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Thomas Hobbes' state of nature – all against all – is reality in Afghanistan!

    August 24, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      In many tribal areas Max Weber's conception – the monopoly on violence – is unheard of,

      August 24, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      The behaviour of these American generals explains why the war in Afghanistan is so costly!

      August 24, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  2. shakti

    Helmand accounts for 1% of Afghanistan's land area? Must have shrunk terribly recently!

    August 26, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  3. I love syria

    I hope that every body will read this in a good faith and without heat
    first of all I would like to ask Mr.: Abu Dyad to be more educated and
    have some respect to others dos not matter if they are your apposition
    and if they started there stupid non sense words ,,Ignore them ,,we are
    the most educated nation on the face of earth and we should not allow
    the outsiders to create problems among of us ,,each one and every one
    have the right to say what they like with all respect and without using
    the bad words ,,I hope next time you answer someone you will be more
    respectful and try to understand way is it they want that ,
    My second parts is to all of these peoples who want the NATO to intervene
    in my home land ,I don’t know who you are or where do you live or what you
    do or trying to do , The person who dos not take other things in consideration
    and look at what has happened in other places where the UN has interred ,
    this person have to be blinded or not in good mental health ,
    I ask you this one question ( If you have a problems with your father )
    do you call the police or you try solving the problem within the family ,,,,ask
    your self this one question and you choose the answer after ,
    I personal sure that the Un and USA and any other opposition country they
    are trying to destroy you and me as a nation then take over my and your land
    eat my food and yours ,, way the UN did not interferer in the UK when they had
    the trouble lately I guess you don’t have an answer ,, because they are the same
    pants with two peoples , we should all vote no fro any outside interferences in
    our country and try to solve our problems with peace and love and understanding
    But our main problem remain the Radical Muslims (ألأخوان ألمسلمين) these
    peoples are very stubborn and they don’t want understand the revelation of change all around the world and they still want live as 200 years ago ,,let them live they life the way they want but they should make sure that they don’t try
    to interfere in our life ,,,they believe in God and we also ,,,

    September 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm |

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