By Taylor Marvin
I recently finished Can Intervention Work, a slim volume of twin essays authored by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus examining how humanitarian-motivated military interventions can succeed. Stewart’s essay, which opens the book, suggests an interesting comparison between the practitioners of modern intervention and British colonial administrators. One of the key failures of the current effort in Afghanistan is a lack of local knowledge among military and especially civilian practitioners. Because of security concerns, conflicting priorities, and the generalist focus of most modern government agencies and NGOs few practitioners spend extended periods in the Afghanistan, are able to create durable connections with ordinary Afghans, or learn local languages.
Stewart contrasts this disconnect separating international practitioners and ordinary Afghan society with British imperialists. While few modern officials or NGO workers would appreciate the comparison, in contrast to today the colonial officials of the British empire prized the local knowledge of specialists and created institutional structures that encouraged and fostered these skills.
British colonial officials were often cruel, erratic, and racist, as well as representatives of a colonial system fundamentally designed for exploitation, not development. However, Stewart argues, in contrast to their modern counterparts, British colonial officials stationed in Asia served abroad for decades, acquiring — and, crucially, were promoted on the basis of — language and cultural skills. Unlike today “this cadre of specialists in Parliament, the military, and the media,” Stewart writes, “provided a well-informed challenge to exaggerated ambitions or fears about Afghanistan.”
There are reasons to question this reasoning.* For all their local knowledge British colonialists suffered major defeats which were often sparked by their tone-deaf indifference to local grievances; the 1857 Indian Rebellion is one example of many. Indeed, despite the “well-informed” regional knowledge of 19th century British colonialists the First Anglo-Afghan War was certainly a Western defeat in Afghanistan more severe than today’s war. This suggests that while regional specialization is important, it is no panacea for the arrogance inherent to colonialism and often foreign invasion.
But it is true that today’s practitioners in Afghanistan — and the entire international effort they embody — appear to often lack the specialized local knowledge crucial to successful state-building. As Stewart and others have noted, this is a serious weakness of the current effort in Afghanistan. For military servicemembers, the demands of rotating deployments makes it difficult for veterans to pass on regionally-specific experience and lessons learned. For civilians, this disconnect is arguably even worse: security concerns restrict most foreign aid workers and administrators to guarded compounds, and few possess relevant cultural and language skills. The senior officials responsible for setting policy, both in and outside of NATO governments, spend little time on the ground in Afghanistan, and have even less local experience.
Of course, Stewart is carefully to differentiate between the local specialization and general outlook of colonial officials. Western governments, Stewart writes, “should not be trying to replicate a nineteenth-century ethos”; obviously, Western and Afghan societies would not support them if they did. But it is obvious that the modern practitioners’ generalist outlook is problematic. Too few speak Afghan languages, and too few are able to meaningfully interact with ordinary Afghans. This generalism is the result of many limitations: the buzzword-heavy culture of modern management consulting that stresses universal principals over regional specifics, the casualty-adversion that isolates practitioners into guarded compounds, the short overseas tours that disincentivizes learning specialized local knowledge. But whatever its cause, a generalist outlook disconnected from local realities is not conductive to successful, realistic policy — as Stewart’s anecdote of attending a government conference on Afghanistan, held in Estonia and attended by only three Afghans, all US born, amply illustrates.
Stewart expands his critique into a general call for smarter interventions; in this telling, decisions to intervene should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments on why we cannot intervene in a particular place, or why we should not intervene too deeply.” This is certainly a valid critique of liberal interventionist thinking, though I would caution that the general hurdles to successful interventions are as vital as specific knowledge.
But the importance of local knowledge is potentially a general deficiency that makes nearly all full-scale, boots-on-the-ground interventions unfeasible. Successful full-scale interventions, especially those with state-building components, require practitioners with local knowledge. While neoconservatives and to an extent liberal interventionists once downplayed the importance of this specialization, in the post-Iraq environment this assertion isn’t controversial. However, this language and cultural knowledge gap is a human capital problem that poses a real obstacle to advocates of humanitarian military interventions, despite their motivation.
All modern interventions are nominally short-term, despite the tendency of mission creep and unplanned setbacks to expand their mandate. This makes it difficult for institutions to incentivize building the local skills that Stewart stresses. Unlike the colonial administrators Stewart cites — who could expect their postings to last for decades, making acquiring local languages and cultural knowledge a valuable long-term investment through their career — today’s practitioners know that the US presence in Afghanistan will dramatically shrink in the next few years. Even excluding the modern security-driven isolation that makes in-country cultural interactions difficult and institutional cultures that fail to reward specialization, modern practitioners have significantly less incentive to invest the time and effort required to acquire deep cultural knowledge they can expect to soon be dramatically less relevant. Just as Americans who became experts in Vietnamese culture saw less applications for their skills after 1975, those who invested considerable energy in learning Dari or Pashto — while admirable — may see this specialization as less valuable to their career than generalist skills with less of an expiration date.
US Army Photo by Spc. Alex Kirk Amen, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, via Flickr.
While this is an arguable point, I believe this is a major structural flaw in liberal interventionism. As long as foreign interventions are benchmarked around politically-acceptable short timeframes, civilian and military practitioners will have less career incentives to acquire specific cultural skills with little direct applications decades on. As Stewart argues, government agencies and NGOs could certainly place more emphasis on rewarding those who acquire these skills. Additionally, this isn’t to say that acquiring cultural skills doesn’t provide indirect career benefits — acquiring them certainly demonstrates commitment and general aptitude. But as long as practitioners cannot, unlike colonial administrators, see a stable long-term market that directly applies their skills, they have less incentives to acquire them.
If the success of intervention is dependent on the availability of a large cadre of practitioners with deep local knowledge, this bureaucratic incentive problem is a major barrier to pro-intervention arguments. Prospective interventions can draw from existing regional specialists in academia or NGOs — though, as the Iraq War demonstrates, these specialists are often ignored when they bear unwelcome counsel, and distinguishing disinterested experts from those with agendas is difficult. But successfully implementing counter-insurgency and state-building programs require large numbers of regional specialists also knowledgable about whatever technical field they will be working in, whether military of economic or political. These very specialized human resources take time to grow, and cannot be counted on to emerge in sufficient quantity.
This is particularly troubling because countries have repeatedly failed to incentivize regional expertise even in regions known to be potential trouble spots. For example, during the period leading up to the Falklands War British officials could have reasonably expected that, while they never expected an actual war with Argentina over the islands, building and maintaining institutional Latin America expertise was a prudent strategy. But as reported in Max Hasting and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklands, the British were unprepared for the diplomatic requirements of successfully averting conflict. Despite their two possessions in the region — the Falklands and, until 1981, British Honduras — Latin America was not a priority for the British Foreign Office. Specialists tasked with the regionlacked resources, and in the early post-war era was primarily focused on commercial, not political, relations. British intelligence on Argentina was minimal, and during the conflict few British servicemembers landed on the islands spoke Spanish. The point is that maintaining institution’s regional expertise resources is difficult, even in regions known to present potential future problems. Because humanitarian crises cannot always be expected to occur in regions with a deep bench of specialists available, this problem is even more apparent for humanitarian-minded interventions.
No matter how many existing regional specialists there are to draw on, successful full-scale interventions will always require dramatically increasing relevant human capital. Not only is this time-consuming — and, as the Iraq War again shows, mistakes made in the opening states of an intervention can have dramatic long-run effects — but incentivizing these specific, limited-application skills is a difficult bureaucratic problem. While many critics of foreign interventions point to a lack of local expertise as a key flaw of these efforts, few question whether bureaucracies can offer sufficient incentives for practitioners to acquire them. The short-timeframes inherent to full-scale interventions suggest that this human capital problem is so challenging that it should be considered a integral hurdle to successful full-scale, state-building intervention.
*More specifically Stewart’s status as a regional expert himself, which he largely casts himself as in the text, has been questioned.
Update: Edited for clarity.