By Jonathan Power*
Let me appear to be cynical for once. I’m constantly arguing that war can be avoided and even pre-empted if would-be war criminals are arrested and stopped in their tracks. But what if the way to end a war is not to intervene, not to help, but to encourage the likely winner to get on with it and get the job done?
In effect, this is how President Joe Biden has decided to act with Afghanistan. The US is now leaving the Taliban to do their darndest. There will no longer be US and NATO forces to support the government. The Taliban will probably swoosh to victory in no time at all, just as the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese did a generation ago when the US lost heart and retreated home with its tail between its legs.
France seems to be making a similar retreat in West Africa. After nine years of trying to support five governments, President Emmanuel Macron announced in June that French troops will be pulled out. It is obvious that these African governments on their own cannot defeat the jihadists, many of them loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda. Before long they could well be overthrown. But the French government has decided that the cost is not worth the candle.
Islamic autocracies—if the jihadists win the day—are not ideal but at least they will replace the breakdown of civil order in much of the countryside with some semblance of law and order. We tolerate the justice system of Islamic fundamentalist countries in parts of the Middle East. Why shouldn’t we in Africa—if it avoids more deaths from war?
This perhaps cynical point of view ignores, as with Afghanistan, the consequences of withdrawal—the probable curtailment of girls’ education and a diminution in the effort to bring about equal status for women. It will be the end of justice as we know it—it will tend towards the arbitrary and cruel. It will probably be a quasi-dictatorship, precarious because of the intra-rivalry of war lords. However, it may end the growing of poppies which the American and European militaries tolerated even though Afghanistan is the source of most of Europe’s illegal heroin.
As withdrawal is now almost completed, the killings in all likelihood will wind down. 250,000 Afghans have died in the 20 years since the US intervened and much of the economy and society turned upside down. Over 2,300 American soldiers have died. It is reckoned that the US alone has spent $824 billion on fighting the war. That amount of money could have done wonders for USAID spending in the Third World or for improved education and health services for the poor at home.
If the price of that is going to be the loss of girls’ education, I’m sorry but the Afghans have to work that out for themselves. Maybe they could be persuaded to emulate fundamentalist Saudi Arabia which once had the same attitude but where now there are more girls than boys in the country’s premier university. The Saudis could use their influence on the Taliban to good effect.
In a provocative essay in Foreign Affairs in July 1999, titled “Give War a Chance”, Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, wrote: “An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence”.
Since the establishment of the United Nations, argues Luttwak, wars among the lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their natural course. Instead, they are often interrupted early on, before they could burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a lasting settlement. Cease-fires and armistices have frequently been imposed by the Security Council in order to halt the fighting.
A cease-fire tends to pause war-induced exhaustion and allows belligerents to reconstitute and rearm their forces. This was true of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. Luttwak observes: “It might have come to closure in a matter of weeks if two cease-fires ordained by the Security Council had not let the combatants recuperate.”
More recently, this has been true in the Balkans. Each time a partial peace was imposed by the UN with the strong support of the US and Europe the pause was used to recruit, train and equip additional forces for further combat, prolonging the war and widening the scope of its killing and destruction.
Cease-fires and armistices are often imposed on lesser powers by multilateral agreement. But perversely, they can prevent the transformation of war into peace. The Dayton Accords, led by the US, which supposedly ended the civil wars that broke out when Yugoslavia split up into Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia did not bring a final peace. The conflict rests in suspended animation. There remain three rival armed camps with combat stalled but a state of hostility prolonged indefinitely. It is in fact a frozen conflict. Since no side is threatened by defeat and loss none has a sufficient incentive to negotiate a lasting settlement. One sees this particularly in Bosnia which has a three-headed government. Inevitably, it is extraordinarily difficult to get anything done.
Luttwak has little time for UN peace-making which tries to be even-handed. What it should be doing is “to help the strong defeat the weak faster and more decisively.” Too often, he says of the UN, its peacekeepers become passive spectators to outrages and massacres, as in Bosnia. When international forces see themselves as disinterested interveners it can lead to the bizarre situations as when US and UK forces encountered face to face in Bosnia those everyone knew were war criminals and decided to do nothing. (Nearly twenty years later some of them were brought to justice at the UN’s War Crimes Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia.)
Luttwak also turns his guns on the “destructive” activities of humanitarian relief agencies. He is particularly harsh on the UN’s Relief and Works Agency which was established immediately after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war. The camps are still there, refugees have begat refugees who have begat refugees. The bitterness of defeat is passed down from generation to generation. They “retard” the advent of peace.
During the Vietnam-Cambodian war UNICEF, desperate to feed women and children escaping the war into Thailand, inadvertently ended up helping the whole family. But many of the fathers were fighters for the murderous Khmer Rouge, recuperating from combat. Once restored to life they returned to fight. UNICEF was accused of inadvertently prolonging the war.
I disagree with Luttwak on many points—UN peacekeeping has often brought peace—as with Namibia, El Salvador, Cyprus and most of Congo. In ex-Yugoslavia one can argue that the UN was not given enough resources to imprint its will on the situation. For example, the Dutch troops who “stood by” when the Serbs took away the menfolk to be executed cried for backup for their small force and were not heeded.
Moreover, Luttwak ignores the fact that the number of civil wars raging has gone down almost each year since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. Much of this is thanks to the UN and other regional peacemakers and NGOs.
On other issues—Afghanistan and Syria—I agree with Luttwak because the damage done by intervention (including allowing the growing in Afghanistan of opium poppies that are the main source of Europe’s illegal heroin) far outweighs the good things it has brought about.
In Syria, after much prevarication, the US decided not to intervene in its murderous civil war. Rightly, President Barack Obama decided that it would add fuel to the flames with a clear outcome unknown, risking the US being bogged down for decades with half the population against it. The war is being left to burn itself out. In fact, in most parts of the country it has. The destruction it has caused is tremendous, but intervention would have made it worse even if America did impose order eventually.
In sum, I’m half with Luttwak and half against him. Each situation has to be treated on its merits. There can be no hard and fast rules, but I would say a rule of thumb should be no military intervention by the big powers and the deployment of an adequate numbers of lightly armed troops when the UN Security Council orders peacekeeping. There are no guarantees when it comes to the question of how to lessen war, but I believe that following these two rules would be the way to building a more peaceful world.
* About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com