For success in foreign wars, do less, says MP

A new book* by a globetrotting MP and academic gives Western nation-builders an A for effort but an F for achievement. In fact, he argues, the West is actually trying too hard.

The West's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost trillions of dollars. Thousands of lives have been lost. The results? Still unclear – but at best, a messy, compromised withdrawal. At worst, disaster.

The NATO campaign in Libya, however, which cost only around $3 billion, is coming to a surprisingly positive end. Colonel Gaddafi is effectively defeated and, although there is a hard road ahead, most observers are cautiously optimistic about the future.

Why did a small-scale, low intensity intervention in Libya lead to a good outcome, when huge-scale, high intensity interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan got so catastrophically bogged down?

That question is at the heart of a new book by Tory MP and academic Rory Stewart, who has seen many interventions first hand. The conventional answer, he says, is that the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan ran into difficulty because of bad planning or a lack of troops or money.

But this, he argues, is backwards. These big, nation-building interventions have failed not because they were underequipped but because they were overequipped. With billion-dollar budgets, and backed by unprecedented displays of modern military might, Western officials in Iraq and Afghanistan tried to do too much.

Intentions were good. Cash was funnelled into worthy construction projects. Armies of experts from NATO and the UN swarmed around local ministries, handing out advice and shaping newly formed governments in accordance with the generally understood principles of 'nation-building'.

But there were two problems. First, these Western experts were ignorant of local customs and prejudices. Their theoretical knowledge didn't match up well with the realities of Iraqi or Afghan life.

Second – and worse – the vast flows of money and aid discouraged locals from taking independent initiatives and encouraged corruption.

Meanwhile, looking at successful interventions, a pattern is clear. The ones that have worked best – like Libya, or Bosnia back in the 90s – are the ones where Western countries provided only the bare minimum of help, stepping back as soon as possible to let local groups take the lead.

Local responsibility

Many will disagree with Stewart's analysis. When extra troops and money were sent to Iraq in 2007, the situation there improved. If that campaign had been given more men to start with, perhaps things could have been different. And a hands-off approach might work for Libya, where there was a well established rebel movement, but not for lawless Afghanistan.

Perhaps not, Stewart might reply, but the important thing to acknowledge is that no foreign intervention is ever safe, however many soldiers or dollars you arrive with. At least by leaving things to local people, you give them a chance to take their fate into their own hands.

*Can Intervention Work by Rory Stewart. Published by W.W. Norton & Co, 2011.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with Stewart's thesis? Is nation building best left to foreign experts or to locals?
  2. Should countries ever intervene in each other's affairs at all?


  1. Research the history of a previous international intervention. Did it work? Why? What lessons can you draw?
  2. If you had been one of the early US officials into Iraq or Afghanistan, how would you have gone about rebuilding the country? Draw up an action plan for your first six months.

Some People Say...

“The only really good kind of intervention is one that doesn't happen at all.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the Iraq War went badly?
There's a debate about exactly how badly, but few people regard it as a success. After Saddam Hussein was toppled, the country descended into a sort of anarchic civil war. Thousands upon thousands of Iraqis were killed, and the nation is still only a fragile democracy at best.
And Afghanistan?
Slightly less clear-cut. Very many Afghan civilians have been killed, but not as many as in Iraq. Terrorist bases in the country were successfully destroyed – so some lives may have been saved that way. No one regards the war as a great success though.

Word Watch

A diplomatic word to describe moments when (usually Western) countries get involved militarily in the affairs of some other country. This can take the form of anything from commando raids and targeted bombing strikes all the way to full scale invasion or long-term peacekeeping with 'boots on the ground'.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, whose members have, between them, around 70% of the world's military power. Interventions almost always involve international alliances, which, in practice, means either NATO or the UN.
Extra troops
The war in Iraq came to a crisis with the so-called 'surge' of 2007. Using thousands of extra troops, and some clever diplomacy, US commander David Petraeus successfully gained control over the country's long-running insurgency.


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