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

We’ve had some great speakers at the LSE this year, but Rory Stewart was top of the pops, according to the students’ 9780393342246_CanInterventionWork_PB.inddevaluations. 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.

A Modern Lawrence? Stewart on his Afghan walk
A Modern Lawrence? Stewart on his Afghan walk

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 But now, he laments, ‘a culture of country experts had been replaced by a culture of consultants.’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 dtij rory 3 copy   RORY STEWART FORMER BRITISH DIPLOMAT IN AFGHANISTANboth 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.


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7 Responses to “Book Review: Can Intervention Work? Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus”
  1. Ben Niblett

    Thanks Duncan, that’s a great read this morning.

    It reminded me sadly of Robert Chambers’ description of consultants doing un-participatory rural appraisals in Rural Development: Putting the Last First.

    And also of a book called Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, by Frank Ledwidge, which describes how lack of local knowledge, overoptimism, and prioritising avoiding British casualties lost the popular support needed for success in Helmand, Basra, and elsewhere. The dynamics sound very similar.

  2. Catherine Dom

    “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.”
    OK. In really tough places I think it’s also because it is hard for anyone to confront the brute reality, and keep some hope.

  3. David Couzens

    While still in the military and serving in Afghanistan I (partly out of boredom while cooped up behind the concrete walls) did a review of all ISAF’s quarterly reports. You could sum them all up as “we are slightly behind where we thought we would be but are well placed to make progress in the next quarter”. We never did but instead dropped steadily further behind the “plan”. I have now left (Afghanistan and the Army) and am focused much more at the community level and on trying to re-establish relationships – hard and slow but possible, the hope/challenge is whether changing attitudes at these levels can mount up to something bigger over time.

  4. Robin Stafford

    Having read his books (and travelled in Afghanistan) would love to have heard his talk. He is an MP in Cumbria where i came from and apparently is very good.
    No question he’d be a better foreign secretary than the incumbent. But he knows too much…

  5. Will

    I’ve seen him speak a few of times. His line is usually that peace building interventions should stay out of politics and focus on ‘granular’ (his word not mine) local work. Of course it’s important to know the lay of the land, the dynamics behind conflicts, and people’s genuine needs. Nothing groundbreaking there. But I also worry that, if peace building is an exercise in inclusivity and collective problem solving, by restricting interventions to the very local level leaves a free hand for exclusive macro political maneuverings higher up. It also misses the point that ‘granular’ work only adds up to anything if it is well connected to those higher levels.

    Still, he’s charming in person. But (having just read the David Booth article about the importance of asking uncomfortable questions) is this charm a thin veneer of lipstick on a deep-establishment pig? The son of the deputy director of MI6 and a Baroness with a family seat on the Scottish border, Eton educated, almost certainly MI6 himself, former military and a private tutor to the future King: a beacon of social transformation and inclusivity he is not, I suspect. Would it not be a little saddening if his establishment tune was the one our field danced to?

    • Pete

      Will, I have read a few of Rory’s books and he does not come across as ‘deep-establishment’ to me. He is obviously very bright and well educated, and now he is a government minister he is definitively establishment to a certain extent. But rather than judging him on his luck in having wealthy ancestors and his parents decision to send him to the UK for private education, I judge him on his words.

      As this blog and his book on his time in Iraq show, he is not in favour of colonial style interventions. Nor does he appear to be influenced by big money (I doubt his wealth puts him among the elite). His books show that he has a lot of time for ‘normal’ people in Cumbria and the Scottish borders, whatever their wealth, and he has thought deeply about cultures, history at a local as well as global level and the effect of borders and conflicts on people. I suspect that he would be in favour of gradual inclusive social transformation.