Tuesday 30 August 2011

Lessons from a Decade of Conflict

Looking back at the last ten years, it is tempting to wonder if the world has not learned anything at all about conflict and conflict resolution in that time.

Afghanistan may have been a war of necessity after 9/11, but the international community continues to under-value the need for functioning government institutions to deliver services and justice free from corruption, and consequently the insurgency is now stronger than ever. Pakistan, where millions of people have been displaced by militancy and counter-terrorism activities, enjoys no more stability than ten years ago. Iraq, a thoroughly avoidable war justified through a political abuse of the memory of 9/11, took the lives of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 4,400 US military, far more Americans than were killed on that fateful day in September 2001.

In monetary terms, these wars alone have cost trillions of US dollars and played no small part in the crippling government debt crisis in America today.

Equally worryingly, universal values took a serious hit over the past decade. We witnessed extrajudicial renditions and imprisonment at the hands of Western governments supposedly dedicated to universal human rights. Even worse, torture became an issue of public debate rather than a moral red line.

States claimed that in modern asymmetric warfare and the “War on Terror”, the old rules did not apply, and laws aimed at reducing civilian casualties were niceties that could not be afforded. Such ideas spread well beyond their initial theatres, to places like Sri Lanka, for example, where indiscriminate government shelling during the final months of the civil war in 2009 killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Sri Lanka is one sad reminder of the international community’s failure to prevent mass atrocity crimes in conflicts over the past decade. Darfur is another. The ethnic cleansing in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the re-eruption of violence and much delayed international response in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011, and the perennial disaster that is Somalia are three more.

Despite the development of a clear framework for international intervention in the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, “R2P” has not been as evenly and fairly applied as it should be. When it has been brought into play, it has also been abused, such as in the case of Libya, where a UN Security Council Resolution justifiably authorising outside military force to protect civilians, particularly those in Benghazi under immediate threat of a massacre at the hands of rapidly advancing troops loyal to Qaddafi, was interpreted broadly to include air support for a rebellion pushing for regime change.

Such stretching of the rules will surely prompt long-lasting suspicions on the Security Council and beyond, and will thus undermine future attempts to invoke R2P when it is most needed to protect those facing mass atrocity crimes.

A cynic might point to all this -- the senseless deaths, the budget-busting expense, the abandonment of values, the undermining of international law -- and conclude that Osama Bin Laden was all too successful with his criminal attacks. If his purpose was to anger the system so it lashed out wildly and counter-productively at its own rules, he certainly did that much.

But the reality undermines such cynicism. Ten years on, Osama bin Laden’s caliphatist dream is not one step closer to being realised, and his nihilist vision of Islam never gained support from anything more than a miniscule fringe of his intended audience. Muslims were simply not interested, and by the time he was killed in his hideout in Pakistan, the Arab world was too busy pursuing positive goals, like fundamental freedoms and democracy, to notice.

In that, there is a lesson in humility for the international community. The lives and dollars spent on pursuing wars against some dictators while propping up others were ultimately not as effective as simple people power. The value of outside intervention, even when constructive on balance, is often very limited.

The other lesson to be learned from the past decade of conflict is that prevention is better than cure. When a country stumbles, when state institutions are deteriorating, when violence threatens -- that is the time for the international community to take notice and act. The world has an interest in ensuring that things do not get worse, that the situation does not descend into mass atrocities, and that those states are not exporting their crises in the form of terrorism or conflicts with neighbours. By the time you have a failed-state situation like Somalia, the road back to anything resembling normality seems near impossible.

And if we can learn anything at all about intervention and conflict resolution from the past ten years, let it be patience. Fixing a shattered society and preventing it from returning to violent conflict is not something that can be done in a few years. It takes far longer than democratically elected politicians in the West are usually willing to admit to their tax-paying constituents, and state reconstruction plans have far longer time-spans than the term of office of any foreign minister. One decade for a place like Afghanistan is just not enough.

(this article also appeared in Al-Quds Al-Arabi)


  1. I agree with much of what you say here, Andrew, but I would quibble with your assertion that the international community undervalues governance in conflict situations. I'd say that most policy-makers see good governance as the only durable solution to violent conflict; they just don't know how to make it happen. Sometimes you can see the correct answer but still can't figure out how to work through the proof.

  2. I would actually agree. Especially when analyzing funding decisions, the international community does not seem to value the real work needed to establish, maintain and support good governance. A huge element is the inability of the international community to effectively articulate to the general public this necessity.


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