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on 29 January 2012
I think it is fair to use that statement as my headline. One of the authors quotes David Edelstein who found that out of 26 military occupations since 1815 only seven succeeded. That's one hell of a record. If you read this book you will understand why intervention is such an unsuccessful venture.

The first essay by Rory Stewart focuses on Afghanistan with bits and pieces of Iraq thrown in. Having read the 89 pages I found myself rather disillusioned because one is left with the impression that the intervention in Afghanistan is and was a complete waste of time, money and above all people from beginning to end (if an end is indeed in sight). ISAF ought to be wondering more about `why are we here' because they seem to be treading water virtually since Day 1.
The civilian administrators are no doubt fair-minded and high-minded in the pursuit of their projects, the implementation of which is rather incomplete, or maybe non-existent is a better word. Also, none of them appear to be concerned about the actual needs of the Afghan people and the essay gives the impression that they are not eager to find out what these may be.
I think it is fair to say that Afghanistan would be better off without these `interventionists'.

The second essay by Gerald Knaus deals with the Balkan wars and with the intervention by NATO and the European Union (EU). I found this a bit harder reading than the first essay because I thought it was inconclusive. On one hand, the author shows how successful the intervention in the Balkans turned out, but on the other hand I also felt that future success depends on the `foreign administration' to continue indefinitely. It will be interesting to see whether the administrator can relinquish his office after all these states have become members of the EU.

What I liked about the piece by Gerald Knaus is that it gives a lot of background information on the subject of intervention in general. What I also liked is that both essays begin with a timeline detailing the events. If you know your history most of these dates will not be unfamiliar and if you don't it is a useful summary of the main events.

I agree with other reviewers here that the book is both thought provoking and embarrassing. Maybe it will not be widely read, but it should be compulsory reading for interventionists although I doubt whether these people will learn anything useful from it. And that is a real pity.
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on 30 July 2012
A very passionate critique of the "international community" written by two people who know. One of the two articles is sharply personal, the second more cooly analytical, but the authors' experience and passion comes through clearly. I find their analysis of the short sightedness and futility of much international intervention very persuasive, but also share their conviction that in certain circumstances one must try. If you are a tax payer funding international intervention, or a practitioner trying to do good in tricky places, its well worth reading and reflecting on this short book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 March 2014
Focusing on Afghanistan since 2001, Rory Stewart identifies reasons for the failure of intervention to achieve a "sustainable solution". Goals have been unclear, obscured by buzzwords and western-style "management speak". Leaders sent in to sort out the problems have stayed for only short periods, with foreign specialists remaining ignorant of the local culture since they rarely set foot outside protected compounds for security reasons. So, each successive surge of ever larger numbers of troops, with additional resources and revised policies, has failed to stabilise the situation.

Little heed was taken of McNamara's "lessons" from Vietnam, notably that "there may be no immediate solutions. We failed to recognise the limitations of modern high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine...We viewed people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experiences. We do not have a God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose. We exaggerated the dangers to the United States".

In contrast to Stewart's somewhat rambling, anecdotal contribution which often seems overly concerned to display his literary style, Gerald Knaus produces a systematic, coherent and very informative analysis of the relatively successful restoration of peace in Bosnia from the late 1990s, although recent events may have undermined this. Triggered, some say too late, by shame over inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda and Srebinica, intervention in Bosnia largely took the form of targeted bombing and training to support Croatian and Bosnian soldiers against the Serbs.

Knaus examines four interpretations of intervention in the Balkans. He is critical of the "planning school of nation-building" as developed by the American Rand Corporation think tank which argues that the number of troops and resources needed to subdue a population of a certain size can be calculated "scientifically" using formulae. It is a simple questions of inputs versus outputs. The fact that Vietnam at one point had more than 600,000 troops covering a population of 19 million suggests the inadequacy of this approach, which is also likely to be prohibitively expensive anyway for a large country.

At the other extreme is the "sceptical futility" school which Knaus finds too negative: "if you understand the culture, if you avoid counterproductive violence......... if you train the local forces well, if you pick your allies wisely, if you protect enough civilians and win their loyalty and more you might succeed," but that there are too many "ifs" to make this likely.

Knaus concedes that a period of tough, authoritarian "liberal imperialism" may be necessary as practised by Paddy Ashdown when High Representative in Bosnia, but he clearly favours what he calls "principled incrementalism", a kind of "muddling through with a sense of purpose" in, for instance, the process of enabling displaced groups to return with a degree of grassroots organisation.

Although very interesting and chastening reading, this book might have been more effective if ideas could have been integrated into a continuous whole, rather than presented in two separate sections by different authors with some repetition. Coverage of a wider range of war zones would also have been useful to demonstrate key points.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 October 2011
Unlike the other reviewer, I got more enjoyment from Rory Stewart's essay. I suppose he can come over as patronising, but then his experience is rather extraordinary. He was brought up in the Far East, his father being a World War II vet still on active service. Rory himself had a brief military career before a period of work for the Foreign Office, notably being governor of an Iraqi province in 2003. He also famously walked alone across many Asian countries including Afghanistan in 2002 (during winter), and has spent several years with the wise guys at Harvard. He is now a Tory MP.

His essay is basically about the experience in Afghanistan, arguing that the devil is in the detail and he paints a frightening picture of how the US dominated mission have a standardised view of how to `fix' any country, the local details being more or less insignificant. Their health and safety procedures are so all-pervasive that most visitors and even some people who work in Afghanistan never leave the bases.

Stewart contrasts this with the way things were done in the nineteenth century, but it was actually only in the nineteen eighties - when so much changed - that the CIA started to dismantle their network of old-fashioned `spies' and started worrying about political correctness instead.

The other essay I found less interesting and actually difficult to penetrate, but it left me thinking that the fundamental difference between say the intervention in Bosnia, which Stewart and Knaus support, and the one in Afghanistan which they don't, comes down to the character of the chief instigator and the underlying intention.

Whether we like it or not most politicians are careerists, and they follow their leader. A new leader with a new philosophy therefore automatically creates a climate change.

The intervention in Bosnia was a peace-keeping mission, not an exercise in empire building, which in truth was what was going on in Iraq and fundamentally in Afghanistan. The words are one thing, and in Clinton's case there was some relationship between the words and the truth. This did not apply to Iraq and Afghanistan where the intention if not the propaganda was to impose the will of the USA on Asia for the foreseeable future.

The change in philosophy explains a lot of the mistakes which were made.

This is a thought provoking book, which as the other reviewer says may not be read by many people. Most people seem to think either that all interventions are bad or that all interventions are good.
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on 17 October 2011
I came to read this book with the advantage of having served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan with the British Army. Much of what has been written by Stewart and Gnaus chimed with my recollection of what happened in all those countries. The book is split into two essays that complement each other. Stewart answering the title of the book through the Afghan lens or 'intervention under fire' as he puts it and Gnaus through the Bosnia example. Both make clear recommendations and provide guidance on what has worked historically. Stewart's essay is somewhat highbrow, almost condescending in tone but his message is clear and damning to politicians, military leaders and the FCO alike. His essay is a passionate plea for the reintroduction of FCO country specialists similar to the Political Officers during the Great Game. His opinion of the British military hierarchy makes one wonder whether they are taught anything on the Higher Commanders' and Staff Course. Gnaus writes an altogether more readable essay that fundamentally argues that interventions can work but only under very specific circumstances, neither of which we can see in Iraq or Afghanistan. Should military, Development and Foreign Office experts read this? Absolutely. Will they? Doubtful. This is a must read for all serious people involved in intervention activities and should be read alongside Sir Hilary Synnott's 'Bad Days in Basra' and Richard North's 'Ministry of Defeat'. These are all powerful critiques of a recent foreign policy that one could suggest is just as poorly refined as the introduction of Snatch Landrovers to Iraq. Gripping, thought provoking and sometimes embarrassing, this is an excellent way for Amnesty International to start its new series of essays.
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on 17 February 2013
This book should be required reading for anyone who is interested in international affairs or foreign policy. Too often leaders think that all you need for war is an instruction manual and a blank check. These leaders will continue to fail if they pursue abstract concepts and not think about the reality on the ground.

The book explores the failures of British and American policy makers from a fresh perspective. Rory Stewart cogently and sensitively argues that by listening to those who know the intricacies of Afghanistan or any other warzone (usually people who have or do live there), we can hope to improve the situations as long as our objectives are not overly ambitious.

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on 6 March 2014
Incredible insight, incredibly apt and totally accurate. Real world experience from the ground in Afghanistan; its amazing how shortsighted some of our leaders have been. Its impossible to rebuild a country without actually being on the ground, or talking to the people.
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on 20 September 2013
A refreshing and candid comparison of chapter 7 interventions and attempts at stabilisation and post conflict reconstrcuction and why they go wrong .. damning expose of poor governmental planning, plus policy without objective or end state.
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on 14 December 2016
Good but long time to arrive
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on 17 August 2016
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