From Kosovo to Kabul

how to win friends and influence people in a war of intervention

(published 2009)


Summary: During its tenth anniversary, the international presence in Kosovo continues to offer lessons with wider implications. The causes and solutions for insecurity are found outside the security sphere. Military engagement has worked best when in step with diplomatic and economic tracks. The international military presence has been perceived by local people as in their interests. Intervention by western capitalist democracies has resonated and reassured. Kosovans have responded to the offer of an external, Euro-Atlantic destiny, and to what this says about their identity. You can't make Kosovo British; at best you can make it more peacefully, sustainably and tolerably Kosovan. Some things will take a generation to change, and some will never change. There's still much that the interveners might not like, but Kosovo is immeasurably better than where it was, and is on the right track. Interventions work when they go with the grain.


The Afghanistan headlines of recent weeks have been familiar reading to anyone who's followed western military interventions over the last fifteen or even fifty years. Alarm at the bitter tick of the casualty count. Generals and politicians being quoted and misquoted on whether we're engaged for a few years or a few decades. Then growing doubt about the new world that our intervention has created. The questions about the resonant 200th fatality, about whether we can declare mission accomplished in four years or forty, and about the perceived worthiness of President Hamid Karzai and his associates, are fundamentally one recurrent issue. Why are we there, and is it worth it?


This summer marks the tenth anniversary of international troops' presence in Kosovo. Seen in the context of today's vicious attrition of improvised explosive devices, measured against the challenges of the opium trade and the kaleidoscope of loyalties in Afghanistan, the Balkan engagements seem now to belong to a different, more benign era. Nevertheless, prudent voices point out that the Afghanistan mission can only be justified and can only work if it is more than a military expedition. The casualties are the price, the tactical- and operational-level military successes the precondition, for the wider work to make Afghanistan politically and socially stable enough to present less of a threat and require less of an international presence. For that wider context, Kosovo offers useful lessons.


In some cases, the lessons only emphasise the differences. One of the most significant factors in the relative success of the Kosovo intervention is that it has rarely been seriously threatened - neither the security of the mission itself, nor its objectives. This clearly doesn't apply to, say, Afghanistan. But taking the example a stage further, the success of the Kosovo intervention has not been seriously threatened because insecurity has not been in the interests of the vast majority of the people - and, more specifically, of those in Belgrade and Pristina with the capacity to influence and check potential troublemakers. The inter-ethnic violence of 2004 never got beyond a short-term public order issue because the Albanian leadership chose to restrain, and not to stir up, those who could have transformed it into armed and organised unrest. Belgrade, economically and politically dominant in the four Serb-dominated northern municipalities, can influence whether discontent is manifest merely in recalcitrance, non-participation and corruption, or whether it becomes a more organised, dynamic (and armed) effort; Serb protests in 2008 at the implementation of the international settlement did indeed threaten the basis of the UN and NATO presence.


Kosovo emphasises that a military success is only a necessary part of a bigger whole. NATO's 1999 bombing of Serbian military, regime and infrastructure targets eventually contributed to the departure of Serbian troops from Kosovo and the return of refugees, but as the weeks of bombing continued without obviously weakening the Belgrade regime, NATO's objectives looked shaky. It took a range of diplomatic and other factors to force Milosevic's capitulation. Once on the ground, NATO's mission ("KFOR") has been a reassuring presence for a decade and, with noteworthy exceptions in summer 1999 and spring 2004, has helped to ensure stability. But the success of the Kosovo intervention will be judged by the enduring viability and stability of the Kosovo state. That's not only a longer-term measure; it also relies on non-military factors like diplomacy, economics and less tangible aspects of local security. The pre-conditions of a security threat usually have little to do with security, and sustainable solutions will be the same. (The gradual recognition of this, incidentally, means that at any level above the tactical it's less and less likely that the UK and US will indulge in a purely military operation.) The intervention has been smoothest when the necessary complementary processes - international diplomatic positioning, economic aid, capacity-building - have been in step with the military.


There has been considerable resentment at international administrative oversight, but acceptance and generally welcome of KFOR, which scores well in surveys of public trust. The international military presence in Kosovo has seemed compatible with the interests of the vast majority of the people there. This goes beyond the effective reinforcement of Kosovo's de facto independence for the Albanians, and protection for the Serbs. The sense of NATO and KFOR as a partner and not just a defender or occupier - helping with infrastructure and the institutions of the independent state - has been a sign for the people of Kosovo that their country is in step with the international community and heading in the right direction.


It's not just the practical effects of intervention that have been appreciated. The spirit of the international intervention has seemed to help the people of Kosovo along a path they wish to travel and, accurately or not, it has reassured them that they are seen externally as the sort of country they would like to be. The UN and NATO missions have been for the most part an intervention by liberal, western, capitalist democracies. Whether or not the people of Kosovo fully realise the implications of EU and NATO membership, they like the sound of it - as the billboard reverence for American Presidents, the sports-stadium placard 'Europe wait us', the suggestion of adopting the 'Ode to Joy' as Kosovo's anthem, and the assiduous work of the Government's European integration team all demonstrate.


This leads to another significant lesson: the importance of offering some external, aspirational goal. When the international community introduced its 'standards before status' mantra, setting explicit conditions for Kosovo's further progress, it was resented because it implied that Kosovo was some kind of recalcitrant remedial case. More successful was the effort to recast largely the same principles as part of Kosovo's convergence with European norms. Telling Kosovo it was the dunce of Europe and wouldn't be allowed off the naughty step until it had done its extra state-building homework did not play well. Explaining that progress towards EU membership depended on following a curriculum of European-wide standards worked better.


With varying skill over time, the EU and NATO have proffered the prospect of membership or at least association as an incentive for improvement and co-operation in south-eastern Europe. Attitudes to future European integration vary, but almost everyone in the region accepts that Europe and European values (however hazily understood) are the playing field. The development of south-eastern Europe over the last decade teaches the benefit of some sense of wider community destiny to fulfill, rather than unique deficiencies to remedy; the offer of an ideal to live up to, rather than shortcomings to live down.


Tempering this is one of the unchanging realities of western intervention in south-eastern Europe (which has been a hobby as long as western interventions in Afghanistan). You can't make Kosovo British; at best you can make it more peacefully, sustainably and tolerably Kosovan. Some things will take a generation to change; some things will never change, nor should they.


I ran a polling station for Kosovo's 2001 local elections (conducted using procedures that were, incidently, considerably more stringent than those that apply for the UK equivalent). The concern that came up most frequently in training, and that loomed largest in our minds as the day approached, was the possibility of someone trying to bring a weapon into the station. This was the Balkans, after all. Would the little sticker of a Kalashnikov with a line through it really do the trick? The situation never arose. What did arise, frequently, and with much greater meaning for the nature of democracy and society in Kosovo, was husbands insisting on showing their wives how to vote, and indeed wives unwilling to vote without such guidance.


There's a new generation of young women in Kosovo now, impressive, dynamic and starting to make and to expect professional careers. They and their daughters will stand alone in the polling booth. But what mattered in 2001 was the very possibility of an election. Womens' rights - to take one example - is an important cause, and it may help to sell your intervention to parts of your electorate. International organisations and bold pioneers and a lot of quiet, implacable women in Kosovo are making crucial steps in what is indisputably the right direction. But it's doubtful whether issues like this were at the root of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, and whether they should be taken as early benchmarks of its success.


The Kosovo that has been created or unfettered by the 1999 liberation and a decade of international oversight still has much that isn't ideal. The creativity and enthusiasm of a booming young generation has been unleashed, but it is checked by the old patriarchal traditions of Albanian and Communist society, and by cynicism about what politics can achieve. Dynamic people are embracing the possibilities of the free market, but stories of grotesque corruption are everywhere. (More damaging than the reality is the all-pervading belief that corruption is dominant and unavoidable, a belief that paralyses reform and creeps like a cancer through everything from the simplest bureaucratic errand to the largest enterprise. Drawing more on media representation than personal experience, between 70 and 90 percent of respondents to a 2008 survey believed there was significant corruption in the Courts, Government, electricity corporation and hospitals.) Individuals of integrity and good intent are going into politics because, at last, they can; but at the same time so-called 'kalashnikov politicians' are are shouldering their way into authority to carve up state power and money. In June, the host of a popular taboo-busting TV discussion show was threatened in a pro-Government newspaper, after one of her film crews had been harassed while trying to investigate Government control of the media in a Government-dominated municipality.


Brave individuals, popular impatience, and (in a small way) well-directed aid and advice programmes will continue to move Kosovo towards the state that its citizens want and deserve, and that those who led the intervention in 1999 might choose. But attitudes take time to change: a former Kosovo Prime Minister once explained to me that generations of young Kosovo Albanians had grown up under Milosevic's Belgrade knowing that the guy who stands up to the police is a hero. Old habits linger, and paying your tax or your electricity bill is the less appealing side of self-determination, especially when you perceive such shortcomings in your politicians and your power supply.


More importantly, it must and will be the Kosovo of its own citizens' aspirations and efforts; the likely overlap with western hopes is no more than a bonus. In 1999 western leaders took a decision to intervene in Kosovo based on humanitarian outrage at the crimes being inflicted on its people, and political concern at the continued instability of Europe's borderland. The interveners may continue to express their concerns about Kosovo society (and attach conditions to development aid), and are justified in acting to counter those aspects of Kosovo that have a practical impact on their own security interests - most obviously the organised crime that benefits from the unresolved issues of status and authority. But the crude grafting on of foreign values will not succeed.


Western policy-makers trying to inch the Balkans in the 'right direction' have consistently looked for well-dressed democrats in their own image, to challenge the old prejudices and move more rapidly towards modern European democracy. It's a search that has been most fraught in Belgrade, as successive governments have shown themselves (not unreasonably) slow to fall in with western policy. But the trouble with bold breakers of stereotype, challengers of national prejudice and transcenders of orthodoxy, is that they don't often win many votes. Time and again the west has had to accept slower progress, compromise, and the tacit absorption of change rather than its dynamic advocacy.


Throughout the history of western intervention in south-eastern Europe, whether NATO bombs, European diplomats or remarkable young Special Operations Executive agents on parachutes have been dropping from the skies, the interveners have often secured the external effects they wanted but they have rarely changed the Balkans internally. Tito was prodded into attacking the Germans and, at their own level of reality, London and Washington thereby secured the strategic effect they wanted. On the ground, however, Tito was fighting and winning his own battle for control, and the western intervention neither diverted nor distracted him. Milosevic finally fell because his own people had had enough of his misadventures and economic self-destruction. Kosovo is being built by Kosovans.


The region has changed irreversibly in the last two decades. In the period of the Balkan imbroglio Slovenia has gone from civil war to the EU Presidency. Croatia, albeit with a stability founded on artificial ethnic homogeneity and selective amnesia about the darker parts of its 90s, will be in the EU and NATO within a few years. Even Albania - twenty years ago an isolated fantasy of Stalinism, ten years ago a failed state - has been pulled into diplomatic respectability and the EU/NATO orbit by the international requirement for stable and mature partners in the Balkans. Although Kosovo has cost the interrnational community enormous amounts of money and effort, and not a few lives, after generations of stagnation, antipathy and violence it now has the basis for a solid and sustainable future. But it's taking time, and the Balkans is still indisputably the Balkans. The underlying lesson applies more widely: Balkan interventions work when they go with the grain.