Why I ...think Bosnia holds some general lessons for Afghanistan

November 2, 2001

Soldiers, as the cliche goes, are forever fighting the last war; so are analysts, commentators and contemporary historians. The opinions of such oracles, be they disgusted air vice-marshals (retired) or opinionated young dons, should be taken with a grain of salt.

British understandings of Bosnia were bedevilled by false analogies with the partisan experience in the second world war, Northern Ireland and Cyprus. Readers who do not want to make the same mistake and who wish to avoid a non-expert's jejune reflections on Afghanistan should turn the page.

At one level, the Bosnian experience has little to tell us about "Enduring Freedom". Unlike 1992-95, we have already decided which side to support. Unlike Bosnia, where no major power had any appetite for military casualties, any ground incursion into Afghanistan should enjoy wide - and justified - popular support. Unlike Bosnia, the military success of the principal enemy is not exclusively a reflection of technological, and thus reversible, superiority. Even worse, the West lacks reliable base areas from which to launch military operations. In short, the stakes are more obvious, but the military odds much longer.

The lessons of Bosnia are applicable on a more abstract level, and might best be conveyed in the form of "do's and don'ts".

* Do not "orientalise" or inflate your enemy. In Bosnia, the fighting power of the Bosnian Serbs was absurdly exaggerated; the potential strength of a re-armed Croatian and Bosnian army was vastly underestimated. Therefore: work with realistic estimates of enemy capabilities; try to ignore childhood reading and barrack-room generalisations.

* Don't "humanitarianise" the problem. In Bosnia, almost no one died of starvation, and very few of disease: it was the war that was the real killer. Fetishising the humanitarian effort, far from saving lives overall, inhibited the necessary military intervention. Fewer Bosnians were killed or starved during Nato's war against the Bosnian Serbs in August-September 1995 than at any point during the three-year peaceful humanitarian operation that preceded it. Therefore: the best way to help ordinary Afghans is to defeat the Taliban as quickly as possible.

* Don't ask, tell. Consensual policy-making in Bosnia was a fiasco that hamstrung effective Nato intervention. The involvement of the United Nations was a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnians were penned into safe areas supposedly under UN protection; thousands were butchered when these were overrun. Therefore: keep the "international community" out of Afghanistan until military victory has been secured, and then use the unusually favourable constellation on the UN Security Council to bring forward a resolution that retrospectively validates whatever has been decided.

* Beware of anti-Americanism. The view that the United States is a simplistic, unilateralist cowboy is widespread not just in the Middle East, but, in less extreme form, among the British elite, including academics. It should be resisted: the US possesses an immensely sophisticated foreign-policy establishment that is almost disabled by its local knowledge and sense of nuance.

There is only one direct lesson that can be applied from Bosnia to Afghanistan. The notion that US foreign policy is intrinsically anti-Muslim could not be further from the truth. The Arab world did little to help Bosnia, beyond demanding western military action, in and out of Ramadan, incidentally. By contrast, the Americans championed the cause of oppressed European Muslims, often in the teeth of British and European resistance, and almost at the price of destroying the Nato alliance; and it was right to do so.

Unfinest Hour by Brendan Simms is published this week by Penguin, £18.99

Brendan Simms
Director of studies in history
Peterhouse, Cambridge

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