Diplomacy’s Prospects: Looking Forward, Looking Back – Part II

After side trips to Haiti and Afghanistan in recent postings, I return now to the matter of inter-cultural political communications, and to the role of diplomacy as an alternative to the use of force.

No matter how you cut it, the decision to intervene militarily in foreign lands is fraught, and past experience with escalation in the face of complex political, security and development issues has not been good.

Ironically, some of the keys to future success may lie in the past, that is, in revisiting the models of the Victorian era District Officers and Political Agents who worked in the employ of the British Colonial Service. The best of that lot knew the language(s) and the history, were networked, connected, relentlessly innovative and highly self-reliant.

Consider, for instance, a comment received from one of my correspondents who has acquired some recent professional experience working in a PRT for ISAF in Afghanistan. He writes in reference to a feature article by Jerome Starkey (Ignorant CIA should copy Raj agents to avoid failure says spy chief) which appeared in the Times of London 06 January 2010:

This article got my attention, because it actually says what I am writing a novel about: the resurrection of a cadre of Victorian era-style political agents for today’s badlands. As a former political advisor in Afghanistan, General Flynn aptly describes how I saw and performed my job. So the one thing he doesn’t mention, is that military personnel are incapable of doing this. You can’t expect people who have been drilled to frogmarch and do everything following proper procedure to suddenly be extrovert and think out of the box. Diplomats can. At least those diplomats who stay clear of the perfume route to an ambassadorship, i.e. your guerrilla diplomats.

In a follow-up exchange, my correspondent continues:

… in the borderlands of the Raj the colonial officers were called ‘Agents’, because the authorities were under no illusion they could administer anything. They were basically eyes and ears, and schemers. In the settled areas, the authorities maintained presence through District ‘Officers’, because there was something to administer there.

These agents leased small tribal coalitions, ran with small bands of the so-called Waziri Scouts, divided but did not rule, bribed, and when things got really out of hand, they called in the Indian Army that would bombard entire villages in what was an official policy of ‘collective punishment’. This was something the Waziris, Afridis, Youzoufzai and other Pathans understood very well. Essentially, a forward strategy that you employ towards buffer states: you keep a weary eye on things, gather intel, but you stay the hell out of the place!

Can somebody tell Obama?

…Indeed, we shouldn’t be studying (if we are studying at all) the Russian experience, but Britain’s colonial experiences in that part of the world.

This is perhaps a thread worth following. Certainly, the colonial enterprise deserves its place in the dustbin of history, and all of this seems overly reliant upon the the threat or use of force.  As Sir John Malcolm is reported to have said, “A political agent is never so likely to succeed as when he negotiates at the head of an army”, and almost two hundred years later I still have a problem with that.

Nonetheless, there is always something to be learned from past experience, and some of these these kinds of observations might usefully be taken on board if performance in dispute resolution and the non-violent management of international relations is ever to improve. The crucial elements of flexibility, adaptability, risk-tolerance, autonomy and resilience remain all too rare in contemporary diplomatic practice.  The fundamental message here is that there are political and diplomatic alternatives to military occupation and large scale combat operations. These alternatives merit closer examination and experimentation.

Consider as well this final passage excerpted from Starkey’s article:

Only a handful of NATO soldiers speak Pashto, the language of the Taleban, and few spend more than a year in Afghanistan at a time.

General Flynn warned that NATO had concentrated too much on plotting out terrorist networks to launch kill-and-capture missions at the expense of understanding the local people they were trying to win over.

But in a rare example of an operation in which intelligence was working, he said US Marines in Nawa, Helmand, had managed to build up a detailed picture of the people around them. “As the picture sharpened, the focus honed in on what the battalion called ‘anchor points’ — local personalities and local grievances that, if skilfully exploited, could drive a wedge between the insurgents and the greater population.”

Such knowledge was the currency of Britain’s Raj-era political officers, who — armed with little more than wit and a keen sense of adventure — often disappeared into the hills for years at a time, penning detailed dispatches to their political masters in Delhi and London.

“The collection of information is one of the most important military duties,” wrote Winston Churchill in his first-hand account of a British campaign along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Story of the Malakand Field Force, published in 1897, includes reams of colourful detail about local tribal dynamics.

General Flynn argued that soldiers needed to learn from recent mistakes. He cited one example in which local women destroyed a new well in their village because it denied them a chance to walk to the river each day and gossip.

His warning was clear: “Without the ability to capture this simple history, prosaic as it may be, others are doomed to repeat it.”

Put another way, to borrow from Robert Fisk, when it comes to high-risk expeditionary interventions and related foreign adventures, it appears so far that “the only thing we ever learn is that we never learn”.

If radically re-constructed and  dedicated to knowledge-driven problem solving and complex balancing in an increasingly heteropolar world, diplomacy offers the prospect of something better.