Book Review: Can Intervention Work? Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus

April 25, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

We’ve had some great speakers at the LSE this year, but Rory Stewart was top of the pops, according to the students’ evaluations. He rocked up at LSE, despite having just been reshuffled to Minister for Prisons, spoke without notes, and blew everyone away. Alas, he insisted on it being off the record, so I cheated – I went back to the 2011 book that provided the material for his talk. It’s actually two 80 page essays, one (on Afghanistan) by Stewart and the other (on the Balkans) by Harvard’s Gerald Knaus. They’re both good, but I will stick to Stewart’s for now.

Stewart’s essay answers the question in the title with a pretty resounding ‘no’. Western intervention is doomed to fail because of its self-defeating combination of ‘isolation, optimism and abstraction’.

Isolation is born of the ‘overwhelming burden on ambassadors and managers to ensure their civilian staff take no personal risks’, with the result that ‘one member of the US embassy told me that she had been in the country for two years without ever leaving the embassy property.’ On the rare occasions when they leave the compound, hardly any Western officials can speak to anyone in their own language: ‘In nine years, I did not meet a senior foreign official in Afghanistan who spoke an Afghan language well.’ Instead of valuing local knowledge.

Stewart himself sometimes seems a throwback to former times, an eccentric Lawrence of Arabia figure famous for walking across both Afghanistan and Iraq in the middle of their civil wars. ‘British India was not a rapidly improvised ad hoc collection of internationals, with extravagant budgets, limitless power and very short term postings. It favoured staff with logn experience who served in remote posts, spoke languages well, and reflected on local culture.’ But now, he laments, ‘a culture of country experts had been replaced by a culture of consultants.’

The writing is wonderful. Here is Stewart describing ‘James’, a friend working for a multilateral institution:

‘He had little knowledge of Afghan archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, language, literature or theology. He did not know the Pashto poetry that celebrated the expulsion of foreign armies. He did not take an interest in the honour codes of gangsters of Old Kabul. This was not his individual failing. He could have learned all these things, but he was not given the time to study them and he would not have been rewarded or listened to if he had known them.

Instead he, like most international civilians was an expert in fields that hardly existed as recently as the 1950s: governance, gender, conflict resolution, civil society, and public administration. They were not experts on gender and governance in Afghanistan: they were experts on gender and governance in the abstract. They had studied ‘lessons learned’ by their colleagues in other countries and were aware of international ‘best practice’.’


Stewart believes success in recent interventions is possible only on narrow, technical issues that are safely removed from the grain of local history and politics: ‘they did well at stabilizing the currency but very poorly at establishing honest local policemen; well at designing bridges, poorly at weaning farmers from opium production’.

Success also tends to come in the first few months after an intervention – for example, removing previous Taliban laws that banned all female education, or freeing up the media. From then on, it’s all downhill for the interveners/invaders, as their ignorance of local realities undermines their ability to get anything done.

The Westerners’ optimism is extraordinary and delusional – Stewart pulls together year after year of quotes from both the military and politicians from Britain, the US and elsewhere, all predicting that yes, there have been mistakes, but now we have ‘got the formula right’ and are on the brink of lasting peace and stability. That ingrained optimism explains the seductive power of the current president, Ashraf Ghani, who while still an academic delivered a formula for state-building based on listing ‘ten functions of the state’, with an accompanying budget. He even turned it into an 18 minute TED talk.

That optimism could be maintained in spite of experience partly because it was couched in terms of ‘indistinct utopias’ of ‘state-building’ and ‘legitimate, accountable governance’ that were impossible to measure – when have you built enough state or governance? When does the Law actually rule? Conveniently, no-one can tell.

Stewart sets out a ‘new approach to intervention, one that could avoid the horror of Iraq or the absurdity of the Afghan surge.’ It sounds pretty much like the standard chorus on ‘working with the grain’, based on officials ‘who have spent a long time getting to know a particularl place. The ideal education is through an ever-more detailed study of the history of a particular place, on the one hand, and of the limitations and manias of the West, on the other.’

But based on what goes before, I rather doubt that Stewart thinks this is possible within the modern system.

April 25, 2018
Duncan Green