Analysing war does little to make one optimistic, the professor and commentator tells Huw Richards
Huw Richards The Guardian, 3 January 2006
The juxtaposition of the two reflects the differing influences on his life. Rogers started as a biologist, taking his degree at Imperial College, then winning an appointment to a lecturership in plant pathology at the age of 24, before joining an overseas development ministry project in Uganda. "The idea was to improve crops, specifically a new variety of sugar cane. I ran my own unit - training a very good Ugandan plant pathologist to take over from me. It was a great learning experience."
He was already interested in trade and development issues, working in the 1960s with the Haslemere Group, an early pressure group concentrating on this field, and began the transition that would take him in disciplinary terms from biological science to international relations on his return to Britain, taking up a lecturership at Huddersfield Polytechnic in 1971.
"I was appointed as a biology lecturer, but rapidly developed an interest in international relations and conflict. The polytechnics were very lively and interesting places at the time. Staff- student ratios were very good and there was a lot of freedom to develop ideas. Huddersfield offered a degree in human ecology, and in 1973 we ran a conference on human ecology and world development, asking a lot of questions about social and economic development and the environmental constraints and consequences that look pretty prescient 30 years on."
The oil shock following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was the direct stimulus for his shift of focus. "I had to learn about the issues around this for a course I was teaching. If you want to learn a subject, one of the best ways is to have to give a lecture course on it."
Then in 1979 came the move to Bradford and what was still a relatively new department of peace studies. "It is a marvellous department, extremely strong and it has grown hugely. There's a remarkable range of experience and knowledge here and I wouldn't want to work anywhere else. I hope to be contributing for another 15 to 20 years, since there is an excellent tradition of asking retired members of staff to come back and teach," he says. He has always resisted offers to join higher-profile universities. He adds that in one highly specific respect the department lives up to its name. "There's plenty of vigorous debate, as there should be, but in 15 years we've never had members of staff not on speaking terms with each other."
His own work sits firmly within the cross-disciplinary and often collaborative traditions of peace studies - in the 1980s he worked with Malcolm Dando, also a biologist by academic origin, on arms control - and he admits to some embarrassment that he gets so much of the department's media attention. He has, however, accomplished a fair bit by himself to justify this. In particular, his book Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century (2000), gives him a legitimate claim to be regarded as one of the prophets of 9/11. He explains the thesis: "The real long-term conflict in the world is between an elite and the marginalised majority." In it he describes the spectacle of a World Bank conference on poverty cocooned in a five-star hotel amid the squalor of Dhaka, in Bangladesh, and the grotesqueness of a gated community in South Africa surrounded by a 33,000-volt fence.
Rogers says: "The one certainty is that every so often the marginalised will revolt. Much of modern politics is concerned with what I call 'lidism', measures aimed not to address the underlying issues but to keep the lid on. But what you can't predict is exactly where or how radical social movements will erupt and that is what makes control impossible - nobody except perhaps a couple of real experts foresaw the Maoist rising in Nepal or the Zapatistas in Mexico." Similarly, pre-9/11 he and Dando expected some sort of attack on America. "But we didn't know where and we thought that a chemical attack was the likeliest means." He remembers their conversation two days after the attack: "We were very clear that the hawks would be able to do what they wanted for the next few years."
When Iraq was invaded he made three predictions: "One was wrong, which was that I thought Saddam had a small cache of biological weapons for use as a last resort. The others were that there would be a high level of civilian casualties and a high risk of insurgency." That analysis has been developed and consistently updated through monthly reports for the Oxford Research Group and weekly commentary on the Open Democracy website. The Oxford reports have been re-published by Pluto Press as A War on Terror: Afghanistan and After (2004) and his latest book, Iraq and the War on Terror: 12 Months of Insurgency (IB Tauris, 2005). His next book, A War Too Far, is due out in February.
To see those reports consolidated in book form is to see a pattern of consistent official over-optimism endlessly dashed. Rogers says: "I remember an interview with a British soldier who said his sector had its first insurgent attacks on the very day that Bush declared 'Mission accomplished'." Rogers's Losing Control analysis argues that any "war on terrorism" is likely to fail. But even he is surprised by quite how spectacularly counterproductive the invasion of Iraq has been.
"It has given al-Qaida and other radical groups an extraordinary recruitment opportunity - it can now say that the site of the Abbasid Caliphate, a hugely important centre of Arab culture, is under the control of Christians and Zionists. The events in Falluja have echoed across the entire Muslim world. And it has provided a new training ground for jihadists - Afghans are now learning from what is going on in Iraq."
He finds it extremely hard to be optimistic for Iraq. "It is an unholy mess, causing great disquiet in the British armed forces. The Americans will find it almost impossible to disengage and I can't see British forces leaving while Blair is prime minister." Iraqi misery may, though, bring benefits for the wider world. "It is such a disaster that it may force a serious rethink on the discredited control paradigm. I lecture to people in the military who are smarter and more aware on this than politicians or business people."
So what should take the place of 'lidism'? "We need more effective, sustainable development underpinned by proper debt relief, trade reform and effective development assistance. At an environmental level, we need to get serious about climate change, which dwarfs every other issue."
Half a lifetime of smallholding has made him peculiarly attentive to the way winters, in particular, have changed. "I like being able to grow sweetcorn in the open air and having a small vineyard. But the changes that make that possible have frightening implications."