United States (US) Army Major General Christopher Donahue would forever be known as the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan on August 30 2021, after 20 years since American troops first set foot in the country that has been widely known as “The Graveyard of Empires”. Afghanistan, linking Central Asia to South Asia is home to a majority Sunni Muslim population and has never been a stranger to foreign invasions and occupations. For the first time in two decades, the Afghans (or rather the Taliban), must rebuild their country without the explicit aid of a foreign power while making sure its regime does not become an international pariah. As the US ends one of its longest occupations of a foreign country, it is high time to ask when has foreign intervention in the affairs of another state been a massive success or an utter failure.
The success of an intervention could be defined in terms of whether the intervention did achieve what it set out to achieve — its missions and goals. Success, however, can be very much subjective because the invaders and the invaded could have contrasting ideas of what determines success.
Three case studies laid out here could perhaps illustrate whether has foreign intervention ever really worked out for the invaders and invaded.
Invasion, Occupation and the War On Terror
On the morning of September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed onto the North Tower of the World Trade Centre in New York City and approximately 30 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon around half an hour after the attacks on the World Trade Centre. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers managed to overpower the hijackers; its target was believed to be the US Capitol.
When the Taliban did not submit to demands by then US President, George W. Bush, to surrender Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden to the US, he authorised a military invasion against Afghanistan. This military operation would be known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Also known as the War on Terror. The invasion was a relative success in achieving its objectives: the Taliban government was toppled and the International Security Assistance Force was established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386.
There is not a shadow of a doubt that the US had a right to retaliate against Al-Qaeda. Terrorism should never be condoned and the invasion cleared many extremists that threatened the national security of the US. However, was the subsequent two decades of occupation a success over the years?
Citing data from a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report in a presentation for an event organised by SIM International Affairs Society, titled ‘Ending The Forever War: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan’, Micah Petersen, a US Army captain who was deployed to Afghanistan, said “From fiscal year 2002 to fiscal year 2011, the security expenditure just become dominant over every other aspect…” and he added that he took away two lessons from this increase in spending.
Firstly, he said, “This is a failure on the NATO forces and the US government forces … if you are going to commit to nation-building, the Department of State has to play a role. You can’t win and establish governments and establish trust in governments just by building security …” Secondly, he added, “Correlated with that is the rise in fear and rise in enemy-initiated attacks. You’d think that an increase in security would result in the lowering of fear in the local population and lowering enemy-initiated attacks but that’s actually not the case. A consistent rise throughout the years of both fear throughout the general population and enemy-initiated attacks. The implied aspect there is that there is a rise in confidence of the Taliban throughout that time.”
According to the same report, however, health conditions such as infant mortality rate and undernourishment have generally improved since the occupation started in 2001.
Although it was an overwhelming success in toppling the Taliban government and destroying Al-Qaeda’s bases of operations in the country, it has been a challenging two decades for the US. There were more and more boots on the ground for some time before a sustained decline in troops culminating in the final withdrawal in August this year. The country was never fully controlled. With many rural areas practically Taliban-controlled, they engaged in a guerilla war against the Islamic Republic and the international coalition forces. The rapid capitulation of the Afghan National Security Forces during the Taliban offensive was a shocking scene to everyone and the fall of the capital city of Kabul on August 20, 2021 was the final nail in the coffin. Today, Afghanistan ranks 9th, in the “Alert” tier on the Fragile States Index, which measures risk and vulnerability in 179 countries. Ironically, twenty years ago the Taliban was violently overthrown, today, the Taliban returned to power through relatively peaceful means.
The Bosnian Three-Way
Going back in time to the last decade of the 20th century, there was an international conflict raging in the Balkans. The Bosnian War, part of the wider break up of the former Yugoslavia, was widely seen to have started on April 6 1992. The war was an ethnic conflict between the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Atrocities such as ethnic cleansing and rape soon became widespread as weapons of war.
On February 21 1992, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 743 which established a peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). UNPROFOR was created during the Croatian War of Independence but it was subsequently mandated for the Bosnian War as well.
Almost a year later on March 31, 1993, the UNSC adopted Resolution 816 that effectively established a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina and all measures must be taken to ensure the ban was enforced. Only flights that were approved by UNPROFOR were allowed to use the airspace. In order to ensure compliance to the no-fly zone, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), through Operation Deny Flight, enforced the ban. As the situation on the ground was deteriorating with increased violence, Resolution 836 was passed on 4 June, 1993 to expand the mandate of UNPROFOR. The peacekeepers were then explicitly allowed to use force to protect the United Nations (UN) Safe Areas in the country.
NATO intervention in the war was not just limited to enforcing the no-fly zone, the alliance launched Operation Deliberate Force on August 30, 1995 after the mortar shelling of a marketplace in Sarajevo which killed 38 and wounded 85 by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska on August 28. The massacre allegedly compelled NATO to launch sustained aerial bombings on Bosnian Serb forces which were key in paving the way to the Dayton Peace Accords and subsequently the end of the conflict.
The Dayton Peace Accords established that the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina would be composed of two autonomous entities — the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska — and a third unit, the Brčko District, which is governed by its local government. More importantly, the accords created the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and High Representative (HR) for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both entities are in charge of overseeing the civilian implementation of the Dayton agreement. The HR who is also a foreigner — they have always been from a European Union member state — wields enormous influence in the politics of the country and essential veto powers until today.
Without UN and NATO intervention, there would probably be no Dayton Peace Accords and Bosnia and Herzegovina today. The intervention was objectively a success, it ultimately brought an end to the war and peaceful reconciliation in the country which had been through a horrible war between the three main ethnic groups. The intervention fulfilled the objectives as outlined in the three UNSC resolutions as mentioned above too.
However, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political system still ultimately depends on the OHR and the HR. Since the HR wields huge political influence in the country and could have veto powers on many essential powers like a viceroy of some sorts. This raises the question of whether Bosnia and Herzegovina is truly a sovereign state. It is highly plausible the country surrendered parts of its sovereignty once the intervention occurred and when the Dayton Peace Accords were signed. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina ranks in 77th place on the Fragile State Index, in the “Warning” tier.
Protests First, Civil War Second, Then Civil War Again
In 2011, the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East resulting in the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali whom both have ruled for more than two decades. However, it is in Libya where mass protests subsequently deteriorated into full-scale civil war between forces that were loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and those opposed to him.
The UNSC mandated intervention in the civil war with the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya through Resolution 1973 which was adopted on 17 March, 2011. NATO enforced the no-fly zone and intervened on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces. Gaddafi was subsequently defeated, captured and killed by anti-Gaddafi forces. However, rising tensions between different factions and militias deteriorated into another civil war which lasted from 2014 to 2020 mainly between forces of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord based in Tripoli and the House of Representatives based in Tobruk. These two entities were later merged and unified under the Government of National Unity, the interim government of Libya until elections were held. At the time of writing, Libya has yet to go to the polls and its High National Electoral Commission (HNEC) ordered the dissolution of the electoral committees nationwide which effectively postponed the upcoming elections on December 24.
The intervention by NATO forces as mandated by the UN effectively brought a quick end to hostilities between the pro and anti-Gaddafi forces. It was a success: it stopped Gaddafi’s atrocities against the Libyans who were opposed to him. But did the intervention really bring peace and stability to Libya today?
Libya under Gaddafi was a peaceful and orderly state, perhaps one might say its quality of life was relatively decent for its people. However, since the start of the Arab Spring, Libya has experienced two civil wars in a decade, hardly what anti-Gaddafi forces envisioned when they wanted to topple the military dictator from power. Although Gaddafi’s regime was an authoritarian one with human rights abuses smudged all over, it was perhaps the only stabilising force in Libya, controlling all the opposing factions in the country. According to the Fragile States Index, the country is ranked 17th most fragile country in the world, in the “Alert” tier. Ramifications of the fall of Gaddafi’s regime could still be felt throughout the country even a decade later.
Who Benefits? Everyone And Yet No One
In the end, has foreign intervention really benefited the invaded? Perhaps and perhaps not. The Bosnian War was an egregious event where there were severe human rights violations such as the 8,000 Bosniak Muslims who were massacred at Srebrenica. NATO intervention in the Bosnian War ultimately brought peace to the country with the OHR overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords. Bosnia and Herzegovina live in a state of peace today, albeit a fragile one. Afghanistan and Libya however, illustrate a stark contrast as compared to Bosnia. The Americans pulled out of Afghanistan after two decades when it became increasingly unsustainable as they realised they could never build a nation for the Afghans. In Libya when NATO intervened on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces to overthrow Gaddafi, they did not and could not expect that Libya would be embroiled in two civil wars in merely a decade. The Liberal concept underpinning intervention in the domestic affairs of other states could possibly need some reflection, retrospection and reconsideration.