00:07, July 31 75 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-31 00:07:04
Britain must strike deals with ‘unsavoury’ elites, says FCO report

Britain’s big postwar era foreign interventions have not relied enough on striking bargains between sometimes unsavoury regional elites, a Foreign Office study endorsed by ministers has found.

“There will be times when we have to hold our nose and support dialogue with those who oppose our values, or who may have committed war crimes,” said Alistair Burt, a Foreign Office minister who commissioned the report.

The study is the British government’s most comprehensive analysis of what makes external diplomatic and military interventions succeed or fail. It represents a repudiation of many of the assumptions behind British actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Based on studies of 21 different global conflicts, in which Britain often played a part, the independent report has been published by the cross-government Stabilisation Unit, bringing together the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development.

It admits that hasty efforts to set up liberal democratic institutions from scratch are likely to fail, especially if any new arrangements do not reflect the political context and reasons for the existing distribution between the elite.

The report states that Britain needs to be more willing to deal with powerful unsavoury elements even if they do not share British values, or are guilty of war crimes.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Burt described it as an analytical tool. He said: “All too often in the past we have shied away from engaging with individuals or groups that our moral or political judgments deemed unpalatable. Or, alternatively, we have sought to apply overly formal and technical solutions to what are essentially political problems.”

Burt said there was a case for sometimes opening channels to Hamas, the Taliban, or Sunni insurgents that killed US soldiers in Iraq.

Drawing on his own experience of the British intervention in Libya, Burt also admitted that “we rushed to build capacity to enable the new government to govern. But it was all done in the absence of a political settlement which reflected both the interests of the warring elites and the aspirations of the Libyan population. We should have prioritised the politics over technocratic state-building.”

In Libya, the initial focus of peace-building, he said, should have been on individuals and striking bargains with the elite, rather trying to rebuild state institutions from scratch.

Dr Christine Cheng, a lecturer in war studies and one of the report’s authors, has argued that successful interventions, either diplomatic or military, require a sophisticated understanding of the sources of existing power distribution within a country’s elite.

The report says there is no magic formula but warns the more transformative the solution proposed, the greater the risks of instability or a return to violence.

Cheng said: “We need to think harder about these things because we are getting so much wrong. If we keep on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then we are fools. We need to rethink a lot about our approach.”

Interventions in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq had overthrown stable, if repressive, regimes, but the effect was the fragmentation of the means of violence, which led to a splintering of the political settlement, says the report. “Efforts to forge a new ‘grand bargain’ as a result were undercut by domestic and regional forces that were galvanised by military intervention and no longer constrained by, or incentivised to mediate with, a domestic ruling coalition.”

It argues that a heavy military footprint may have the effect of “disincentivising” domestic elite bargaining that aims to forge a new political settlement. In effect, international troops become the dominant ruling coalition and the bargaining game for domestic players becomes one of trying to negotiate “protection and provision pacts” with the occupying force, rather than bargaining with one another.

Military intervention may have the effect of “freezing” the war rather than ending it, the report adds.

It by no means opposes all external interventions but says that too many have tended to “focus on efforts on strengthening formal institutions – constitutional reform, strengthening the rule of law, democracy – in the hope that these will provide a mechanism to ‘tame’ political behaviour and to manage violent conflict. However, in many contexts, formal institutions are not the key political arena in which power is contested and violence is managed.”

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