Lord Ashdown: Iraq and Afghanistan: Will We Ever Intervene Again?

Lord Paddy Ashdown spoke Monday, March 30 at the MacMillan Center at Yale on the topic “After Iraq and Afghanistan: Will We Ever Intervene Again?”



Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is the Former High Representative and European Union Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2002-2006), and a former Member of the British Parliament and leader of the Liberal Democratic party from (1988-1999). In 2008, he was a candidate to be the UN envoy to Afghanistan, but withdrew after opposition from the Karzai government. 

What follows is a summary from my notes. My comments can be found at the bottom of the post.

Ashdown’s response to the question “Will We Ever Intervene Again” was affirmative, and he began by quoting the Kipling poem, The Gods of the Copybook Headings:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man. /There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. /That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, /And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire;

Ashdown compared the international community to the burned fool, because we do not seem to be able to stop ourselves from repeating the mistakes of the past. The situation in Iraq was the result of the triumph of “hubris and amnesia”. Ashdown’s main point was that, rather than saying “never again”, we should learn from the successes and failures of the past, so that when we intervene, we did it well. Overall, the world will be getting more turbulent in coming years, and the ability to, in the wide sense, bring governance to globalization will determine how well we weather the times ahead.

Since 1992, the UN has sanctioned an intervention every 6 months on average, and about 60% of them have been successful by the measure of having prevented a return to conflict in the next five years. Conflict in general has fallen to half the level it was during the cold war. These interventions have by and large had a positive effect on the peace and stability of the world.

So why did these interventions succeed, and the much more visible efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan become so difficult and costly? There are 6 steps to success:

 1. Prevent the war if possible, by strengthening institutions, giving aid, practicing diplomacy, and scanning the horizon for future problems. This will be far less costly than fight the war.

2. Plan for the peace – an obvious lesson (in retrospect) to draw from the Bush administration’s interventions.

3. Security comes first. For the average citizen, this will be the most important thing. Rumsfeld’s dismissal of the looting of Baghdad as “stuff happens” is the kind of thinking that led to Iraqi people turning to the insurgency for security, and it’s the reason that Afghans are increasingly turning to the Taliban. Basic security can often mean that more troops are needed to win the peace than to win the war.

4. Establish the rule of law. Don’t do deals with the powerful, because after a war they are nearly always the most corrupt. Stand for the rule of law. This doesn’t just mean police, but also judges, prosecutors, and legal codes.

5. The economy. Rather than big infrastructure investment, focus on small business so people have a reason to feel hopeful about their future prospects.

6. Democracy.  Democracy is more than elections; it’s about civil society. The longer one can wait to hold elections, the better the results will be since there will be more time for steps 3, 4 and 5 to take hold. The example of Germany, where there was no national election until 1949, is a case in point. Elections are often held early because we think that it will allow us to withdraw quickly, but that doesn’t happen. Ashdown did admit that postponement is difficult to do in an insurgency situation where legitimacy is under attack.

  Ashdown also spoke about “mission creep”, and why interventions tend to drag on past their intended end point. In his opinion, the need to justify to soldier’s families the reason for their sacrifice leads to grandiose mission aims – i.e. spreading freedom, rather than containing the Taliban.  Ashdown expressed cautious approval for President Obama’s recently announced strategy for Afghanistan. Limiting the mission to achievable goals is a necessary correction, but he worried that domestic support for the involvement would be hard to sustain without a noble-sounding justification.

Ashdown finished by speaking forcefully about the impossibility of imposing democracy at the point of a gun. Once people have safety, opportunity and rule of law, they’ll choose democracy of their own account. It might not look like Western democracy, but it will be a natural outgrowth of the culture. For example, Afghanistan has a Western constitution governing in theory, and a tribal structure governing in fact, and this disconnect leads to abuse and dysfunction. It would be better to allow bits of Sharia law to be included, even though we don’t approve of some of its aspects, in order for the structure to have legitimacy.


Ashdown seemed to be walking a fine line between a belief in the necessity to intervene on high-minded principle and a more limited, pragmatic view of Western ability to intervene successfully. This difficult balance left some questions in my mind:

What does one do if providing immediate security means dealing with warlords and war criminals, and therefore would undermine the rule of law?

Many people believe it was a mistake to not hold immediate elections in Iraq. True, institutions are necessary, but where do they get legitimacy from, if not democracy?

Does respecting local customs, and not imposing western norms mean that we abandon promises to uphold the rights of women, or ethnic and religious minorities?



One response to “Lord Ashdown: Iraq and Afghanistan: Will We Ever Intervene Again?

  1. Pingback: General Leakey: EU Civil-Military Operations and Their Effect on NATO « Yale Afghanistan Forum

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