A Bosnian special forces soldier attempts to protect civilians under fire in Sarajevo in 1992: "Bosnia was an example of an attempt to let war do its work... it resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. © Mike Persson?AFP/Getty Images

Give war a chance

There is a new fashion, after Iraq and Afghanistan, for saying we should let civil wars burn themselves out. But that’s not an option
March 26, 2015

Billions have been spent on state-building exercises over the past decades, but war-affected countries everywhere remain ablaze or in a state of chaos. The tide of human misery appears to be rising, not receding.

Last year, the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, came close to being taken over by Islamic State (IS), a pop-up radical religious movement of extraordinary brutality and amazing reach. Syria has remained firmly in the grip of a desperate civil war that becomes ever more complex and difficult to address with each day that passes. Regime change in Libya, achieved with the support of western air power, has resulted in the disintegration of the state. The hesitant progress made in Yemen towards averting another black hole in the region, after Somalia, has been upset by the storming of its capital, Sana’a, by the Houthi movement, a dissident Shia group supported by Iran. The Central African Republic and Congo seem forever mired in a morass of casual violence and killing.

Most disheartening of all for those who hoped that the flaming torch of democracy would ignite positive change around the globe has been the experience in Afghanistan. This is an instance where failure cannot be blamed on ineffective international bureaucrats at United Nations headquarters or supposedly corruptible and inexperienced peacekeepers drawn from far-flung places. Instead, the entire venture was planned and firmly controlled from beginning to end by Nato and participating governments. Following the military campaign to oust the Taliban, it involved a massive effort to try to bring stability to the country under Nato leadership, starting in Kabul and, since 2003, “aiming to enable the Afghan government to exercise its authority throughout the country.” Nato points out that 51 states—over a quarter of all states in the world—contributed to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission for more than a decade.

The end of the “combat phase” for foreign forces at the close of 2014 coincided with an appraisal of the impact of stabilisation and reform efforts in Afghanistan. Those most invested in the operation, the military and civilian officers who planned it and went on to implement it with great courage and determination, have returned home as the greatest critics of western intervention in favour of democratic change.

Given the outcome in Afghanistan, the sense of frustration is understandable. There has been no fundamental change in the country. Controversial elections have led to a change in the leadership, but it is a precarious one. Instead of allowing the Kabul government to exercise control throughout the country—the avowed aim of the ISAF operation—the new president was not even able to appoint a government during his first 100 days in office, or by the time ISAF ended. The Taliban, who were never fully defeated, moved to fill the resulting vacuum. Attempts to shape a political culture in the image of the west, and to inculcate western values, such as women’s rights, seem to have bounced off local traditions and practices without much lasting effect.

The pessimism engendered by the Afghanistan experience, along with the seemingly endless conflicts in northern and central Africa, has encouraged the revival of a thesis that previously would have been regarded as so politically incorrect that it could not be expressed openly. The doctrine that “war works” is now being aired in the political salons and talking shops of western capitals. This doctrine holds that we need to accept that external action cannot ever really shape the outcomes of internal conflict. Instead, we should leave it to the locals to settle their disputes, if necessary through violence. If this involves protracted conflict and civilian suffering, then that is an unfortunate by-product of the process of nation-building. It is a process, after all, that Europe underwent during the Thirty Years War and similar cataclysms since. In the end, the nations so affected will emerge with their own solutions, even if they are the result of violent convulsions lasting several decades.

Hence, the thesis goes, it is naive for the west to intervene to try to arrest the process of national consolidation that has not yet occurred in the societies in question. Such intervention can sometimes freeze the situation for a while, but sooner or later the process of settling the future through war will resume. Accordingly, we should step aside and “give war a chance.”

It is useful, of course, to consider past experiences and to build on them, if necessary through radical changes in policy. And the policy of offering international assistance to war-torn countries should be no exception. Indeed, it may be useful to question some of the cherished orthodoxies of the foreign aid establishment on the left and pro-interventionists on the right. But it would be misguided to think that we have now come to a new fork in the road and are forced to choose between intervention, on the one hand, and letting chaos reign, on the other. Support for intervention and foreign aid to transitional or post-conflict countries has always waxed and waned, with the pendulum swinging one way and then the other roughly once a decade.

After the disaster of the first major UN intervention in civil war—the Congo operation in the early 1960s, which involved almost 20,000 UN troops—there was a substantial re-assessment. What was then the largest ever UN engagement did not prevent the Congo plunging into civil war. It was a brutal conflict that ended only with the establishment of a military dictatorship under Mobuto Sese Seko. He ran the country with western support as his personal fiefdom from 1965 until he was deposed shortly before his death in 1997. War (and the Cold War involvement of the United States and Soviet Union) seemed to have prevailed over liberal peacekeeping. This negative experience led to an acknowledgment that peacekeeping cannot be applied where there is no peace to keep—to all intents and purposes, this was an early version of the doctrine of “giving war a chance.” A succession of military adventures and ensuing disasters seemed to confirm the wisdom of the doctrine of abstention. The deployment of a US-led multinational force to Lebanon in 1982, which ended after the death of 299 US and French troops in the Beirut barracks bombing the following year, was a particularly chastening case in point.

With the end of the Cold War came George HW Bush’s “New World Order.” There were some early successes, such as the peaceful transition from apartheid in South Africa, carried out mainly by the South Africans themselves, the peace processes in Central America, which involved regional and UN peace-support missions, and the transitions in Namibia and Cambodia, which took place under the protection of ambitious UN governance missions.

When US marines waded ashore on the beaches of Somalia in December 1992, in the dying days of the first Bush administration, they managed to establish corridors for the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to a country where civil war and famine had combined to kill many thousands. The appetite for intervention grew and soon the UN was deploying its own large force, with a far more ambitious state-building mandate for Somalia guided by the new concept of “complex peacekeeping.”

This intervention ended with the slaughter of a number of western soldiers, among them US service personnel, whose corpses were dragged, on camera, through the streets of Mogadishu. Those leading the mission were accused of taking sides in an effort to remove one of the armed factions, led by General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, from power. The UN’s attempt to interfere with the balance of power had failed.

War was given a chance over the next decade, ending with the capture of much of South Central Somalia by al-Shabaab, a movement with links to al-Qaeda, the consolidation of the secession of Somaliland and unilaterally declared autonomy in Puntland, together with the collapse of governance everywhere else in the country. This outcome not only prolonged the agony for the local population, but also profoundly destabilised the region, creating new terrorist threats for the west.

In the aftermath of this humiliating defeat, the US opposed further ambitious interventions at the UN Security Council. However, it soon became evident that standing aside would not be an option either. The Rwandan genocide, conducted under the gaze of the international community, and of a small UN peacekeeping contingent that was partially withdrawn in the face of the slaughter, proved the point. That case seemed to demonstrate that a decisive intervention, even if mounted by a comparatively small force, could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The same lesson seemed to hold true in relation to Bosnia and Herzegovina. If it was chiefly US reluctance to allow UN intervention that prevented international action in Rwanda, it was the UK which rather cynically undermined decisive action on Bosnia. There, ethnic cleansing and other lamentable practices of warfare directed at civilians had claimed tens of thousands of lives, despite the presence of a UN “protection force.”

"Nato finally took armed action to end the conflict in Bosnia. It had lasted for three years and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and millions of displacements. All it took to end it was a limited, five-day air campaign directed against Bosnian Serb targets."
Rather than trying to put an end to these practices, the UK drew on its own experience in Northern Ireland, asserting that it is impossible to end a civil war through intervention. Consequently, despite enforcement authority provided under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and approved by the Security Council, the UN protection force was in practice restricted to consensual peacekeeping. Humanitarian convoys would turn back when mainly Serb militias opposed their passage.

Of course, it was the aim of those militias to displace or starve the ethnic populations for whom these supplies were intended. Frustrating this aim by insisting on making the deliveries, it was argued, would make the UN a party to the conflict. The absurdity of this view was emphasised when the UN declared so-called “safe areas” in cities where refugees had sought shelter from the atrocities. In 1995, some 7,000 mainly Muslim men and boys were massacred at Srebrenica, one of the safe areas, under the gaze of a Dutch peacekeeping battalion that did not intervene.

Bosnia was an example of an attempt to let war do its work. The idea was that ancient hatreds in the Balkans were fomenting massacres and atrocities, and would continue to do so, whatever the international community might attempt. All that could be done was to try to contain the conflict, and to offer a modicum of humanitarian assistance in the meantime, if allowed by the antagonists. This strategy failed, however, to appreciate the extent of the violence and suffering that ensued. Moreover, the conflict started to put into question the credibility of the UN Security Council—a body controlled by the great powers, and in whose continued functioning and authority they retained keen interest.

Faced with this collapse in UN credibility, Nato finally took armed action to end the conflict in Bosnia. It had lasted for three years and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and millions of displacements. All it took to end it was a limited, five-day air campaign directed against Bosnian Serb targets.

The next crunch point came in Kosovo in 1999, when the pendulum swung back even further towards intervention. Mindful of the lessons of Bosnia, and the immense loss of life and suffering incurred, Nato launched a major aerial campaign to end Belgrade’s repression of the ethnic Albanian majority population. The operation lacked Security Council blessing and was strongly opposed by Russia and China. It has remained controversial ever since.

After the disasters of the mid-1990s, “coalition”-led operations became de rigueur. Western states distrusted the UN machinery and insisted on running operations themselves, or through Nato, under a loose UN mandate. However, as Afghanistan has demonstrated, this approach does not guarantee success. This is confirmed by the spectacular collapse of post-conflict state building attempts by the US in Iraq in the wake of the misconceived intervention in 2003. At the very moment that Washington was attempting to consolidate its withdrawal from the country, it had to re-engage massively to prop up the shaky structure of governance nurtured so intensively over the past decade. And it had to do so in an uneasy and unspoken coalition with Iran and with the tacit cooperation of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria—its key antagonists in the region.

The UN itself learnt its lessons about peace-making. A high-profile panel, headed by the vastly experienced Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, led the way towards reform of UN doctrine. Brahimi confirmed that armed intervention to deprive one side of the strategic benefits obtained through committing war crimes such as massacres, forced displacements or the starvation of civilians would not place the UN in the position of being a partisan in the conflict. Instead, the UN would enforce international minimum rules of conduct and its own humanitarian mandate and values. If one of the antagonists chose to violate those rules, action taken in response would not be non-neutral, the favouring of one side over the other. Rather, it would be the balanced enforcement of principles applying equally to all.

Rather than letting civil war do its work, the UN has gradually returned to a more muscular stance on intervention. In 2011, UN troops, along with a French intervention force, took an active part in forcibly ending the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. For some time, the UN, in cooperation with the African Union, has been re-gaining control over Mogadishu and parts of central Somalia, inch by inch, through offensive operations. These have allowed the newly created Somali institutions to start governing under a new consensus constitution for the country. The African Union and sub-regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the Economic Community of West African States are also involving themselves increasingly effectively in attempting to resolve long-running conflicts.

At the very moment when old arguments suggesting that intervention never works are being re-heated in western policy circles in the wake of the defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, bold steps are being taken in New York. The UN intervention brigade in Congo is moving from the pro-active defence of areas threatened by violent rebel movements to the offensive disarming of such forces, in order to enable the government of Joseph Kabila to move from waging war and crisis management to more ordinary tasks of governance. In the meantime, a decisive French intervention in Mali has generated space for the attempt to rebuild the state, after the nearly successful takeover of control by radical Islamist militants at the end of 2012.

What does all of this tell us about intervention and subsequent attempts to stabilise states? The answer is not as simple as the suggestion that foreign involvement in state-building is either a panacea or will never ever work. There are some more subtle conclusions that can be drawn from the mixed historical record.

Despite the experience of the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, some international interventions in favour of state stabilisation and subsequent post-conflict peace-building have worked. This is borne out by the fact that Angola and Mozambique, two very difficult cases from the 1990s, have vanished from the international radar screen. And Sierra Leone and Liberia, another two apparently intractable cases, are at present showing surprising resilience in the face of the Ebola crisis.

However, as these results demonstrate, the road travelled with various forms of international support, ranging from actual armed intervention to negotiating peace agreements to patient peace-implementation support, is long and bumpy. Achieving a peace agreement that sticks can take years or even decades, not to speak of the hard work of subsequently supporting the reconstruction of state institutions under a new constitutional order.

This means that the classical approach of simply handing control to rival leaders who have been fighting one another under a power-sharing deal is not sufficient. Having fought one another to a standstill one day, they are unlikely to agree on constructive, joint action for the benefit of the nation around the cabinet table the next. They are also unlikely to collaborate in ensuring their own irrelevance by creating space for the development of new political parties and actors. Societies take a long time to recover, and to generate a new kind of leadership that can take control over a fundamental reform process.

This also means that “local ownership”—a buzzword of the 1990s—cannot be generated simply by holding a few civil society stakeholder meetings alongside elite-driven peace negotiations, where only those wielding the guns are represented. Moreover, the transition from peace to war is not exhausted by the declaration of a ceasefire. It consists in a lengthy process of empowering new constituencies, particularly women, previously excluded from ownership and participation in the state.

This is the critical point—and one ignored by those who argue that undeveloped societies first need to fight it out before they can settle on the character and definition of the state they want to inhabit. The people of Libya or Syria, or those of Bosnia or Rwanda, are not uneducated savages engaged in tribal warfare that cannot be ended through western intervention. They are people, often with western-style aspirations, who have lost all influence over their future in territories in which rival armed movements have displaced the civil state.

Restoring civil control over the state may take many forms. We now know that it is not realistic to expect Afghanistan to develop a centralised system of government and Westminster-style democracy. Instead, international support can only focus on generating space for the creation of political structures that are rooted in local experiences. Within the framework of such a new constitutional consensus, it is necessary and legitimate to try opening up avenues for broader participation in public life for all groups in a given society.

There are some standard steps that need to be taken towards these aims. These include arrangements for the cessation of violence, stabilisation measures assuring the safety of all members of a society, an inclusive and meaningful national dialogue, a transparent process of reconfiguring the constitutional order and electoral events to fill the new constitutional system with power-holders who enjoy legitimacy.

This is an ambitious agenda, and it cannot be rushed. It has to be embraced and delivered by local actors, according to local tradition and history. The west can help in offering lessons drawn from elsewhere. International actors, such as the UN, are also entitled to campaign hard for the acceptance of key values, such as non-discrimination and full equality for all, although practice shows that these cannot be imposed from outside.

War destroys societies. Where a state has succumbed to armed contestation, the answer is not to wait and see who wins after years of destruction. Unlike in Europe during the Thirty Years War, we no longer accept that suffering on that scale can be imposed upon populations. Values have changed. And in contrast to the European nation-building wars of old, these conflicts are not normally about forming the state. They are about who controls it. We no longer accept that the authority to govern emanates from the barrel of a gun. Therefore, in circumstances where armed movements disenfranchise entire populations by holding them hostage to war, intervention is justified and remains necessary. Of course, military action may not always be possible or appropriate. The toolkit for intervention has expanded significantly over the past few decades, and options need to be calibrated to local circumstances. But standing aside and letting war do its worst is not an option in our interconnected world.

This is not just an imperative of human solidarity. Time and again, we have had to pay the price for the failure to intervene when it was still possible to do so. As war does its work within states, the suffering experienced by civilians leads to polarisation and deep rifts that become ever more difficult to heal through reconciliation as the conflict becomes entrenched in the war-affected societies. Where law and order appears to disappear entirely, undesirables will tend to fill the void, as happened with al-Shabaab in Somalia, as is now happening with IS in Iraq, Syria and, most recently, Libya. Intervention to address such aggressive and destructive ideologies then becomes inevitable in the interest of our own security.