Paddy Ashdown: 'Troops home by Christmas' is not an option

You must commit over a long period as much or more of your resources as during the war

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The international community, usually with US leadership, has undertaken statebuilding missions about once every two years since the end of the Cold War. Some of these interventions have been relatively successful: East Timor, over time; Bosnia, though not to start with; Haiti, perhaps. However, we still make high- profile cock-ups.

Leaving aside the legalities, the American military operation to roll up Iraq was an astonishing success. But the US-led statebuilding operation was a copybook example of how not to do this. We can't build states "by numbers", but nevertheless we need to establish a kind of institutional memory as to how we do this in a more successful way.

First, we forget that, although you can successfully fight modern high-tech wars in weeks, statebuilding takes decades. Afghanistan I think, is probably a 30-year project. When our politicians plunge us into these interventions they nearly always say: "Troops home by Christmas", metaphorically speaking. We know this is driven by the electoral cycle, but the fact is you must be prepared to commit over a long period probably as much or more resources as you committed during the war. In the days and weeks after the conflict probably more troops are necessary than were needed during it; Iraq is a classic example of this.

Secondly, we lovingly forget that item number one is always the rule of law. It is not elections, I'm afraid. If you have elections before you establish the rule of law then all you do is elect the criminals who ran the war. What you create is not a democracy but a criminally captured space. That is what we had in Bosnia. Corruption is now in the marrow and bone of Bosnian society.

The rule of law comes, first of all, by dominating the security space post-conflict. It is necessary to have something close to martial law at the beginning; if not, you lose control. Yet, the US disbanded the entire Iraqi army, with too few troops to do the job. From that point on, they lost control of the situation.

Thirdly, probably the best way to get your troops home early is to reform the economy. If we had done economic reform in the first year in Bosnia we would have had the economy growing in the way it is now. Economic reform needs to come very early, in my view, even before elections.

Fourthly, I don't believe that you can build peace in one nation unless you have at least the acquiescence, if not the active support, of neighbouring states. We managed to build a chance for peace in Northern Ireland when we recognised that Dublin had a right to a say in what went on. Yet we go into Iraq and, at the same time, appear to do everything we can to provoke neighbouring states, such as Iran. We sometimes have to deal with unpleasant people, whether in Iran, or previously in Serbia, but you cannot take an island of instability within a sea of instability and hope to be able to cope with it. With regard to Iraq, the key problem of the Middle East is the Palestinian problem. The fact that the Americans were not prepared to do what was necessary for a just solution in Palestine has meant they have paid the price in Iraq.

These are some of the key lessons. However, they do not appear to have been learnt. In Afghanistan, we have 1/25th the number of troops and 1/50th the amount of aid, per head of population, that we put into Kosovo. There is political short-sightedness: a combination of hubris, nemesis and amnesia.

Hubris followed by nemesis can be seen in the ideologically driven Bush administration, which threw all the plans about how to handle post-war Iraq out of the window and handed Iraq over to the Pentagon. The State Department had more knowledge about the conditions but were told to not get involved. Some of the problems are just pure amnesia.

Two things can happen. Perhaps we are going to burn our fingers one last time in Iraq and then never do this again. That would be a tragedy in an interdependent world. I do not believe we have reached the end of the era of large-scale wars and that we will only be left with small intra-state wars. I think a perfect storm is gathering out there and that large-scale war will return unless we are very careful. I also think there are times when you have to intervene because of the effect on world peace. Either we will say "never again" after Iraq and, particularly, Afghanistan or we will learn how to do it properly and people will understand that intervention is not a rare phenomenon but part of the bloodstream of modern international diplomacy.

Extracted from an interview to appear in the next issue of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. The writer is the former Liberal Democrat leader and a member of the House of Lords

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