It’s a fiasco, says our man in Kabul

Published in the Daily Mail (July 1st, 2011)

Cables from Kabul: The Inside story of the West’s Afghanistan campaign by Sherard Cowper-Coles (Harper Press)

Two years ago, during his tenure as foreign secretary, David Miliband was making small talk with two Afghan ministers while waiting for dinner to be served in the British ambassador’s residence in Kabul. How long, he asked innocently, did they expect their government forces to remain in power in Helmand after our military withdrew? ‘24 hours,’ came the reply.

With those short words – accompanied by an insouciant grin – the absurdity of our Afghan misadventure was summed up. Billions of pounds spent, thousands of lives lost and all we are doing is making the same mistakes as all those others who thought they could tame this fractious nation.

This revealing anecdote is one of many delicious vignettes, laden with spice  and leavened with wit, served up in Cables From Kabul, an account  by Sherard Cowper-Coles of his four years serving as ambassador to Afghanistan and the foreign secretary’s special representative.

The author’s name may be redolent of a character who has stepped out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, but Cowper-Coles is a sharp observer of diplomatic and political shenanigans.

After failing to win the promotion promised following this tough posting, he quit the Foreign Office. In truth, he has served his nation better by delivering such an incisive account of what went wrong in Afghanistan.

On his second day there, he goes to a meeting with William Wood, his American counterpart, recently arrived from fighting the war on drugs in Colombia.

To his horror, Chemical Bill says he is thinking of spraying the entire Helmand Valley with weedkiller to destroy opium fields, despite opposition from the Afghan president. ‘When I woke the next morning I wondered if I had been dreaming,’ recorded our man in Kabul, fearing it would inflame an insurgency.

What follows is a saga of American arrogance, Afghan artifice and British impotence. Much of his  time is spent trying to restrain a  bull-headed ally intent on an impossible military victory after becoming embroiled in complex civil, religious and tribal conflicts running for decades.

Meanwhile, everyone knows crumbling Pakistan is the bigger threat to British security. The author, pushing for a political solution, watches aghast as objectives change, command structures fail, local allies prove a problem and there is ‘mission creep’ on a heroic scale.

‘The parallels with the tragedy of Soviet Russia’s failed attempt to stabilise Afghanistan are too many and too close for comfort,’ he concludes.

The end result is America spending $125 billion a year to pacify a country that raises for itself less than one-hundredth of that amount.

A British officer reveals that when newly-trained Afghan army recruits were told they were going to Helmand, nearly two-thirds disappeared since they were expected to ride around a hostile zone in unprotected pick-up trucks. As a result, in future they had to be locked in buses and not told where they were going.

For all his admiration for British troops risking their lives, Cowper-Coles also raises profound questions about the abilities of modern democracies to fight such wars. An army willing to fight and die must, he writes, be optimistic and unimaginative and gripped by ‘groupthink’.

Time and again, new plans are drawn up for discussion while officers say the fight is being won, despite appearances.

But he questions whether politicians, so sensitive to public opinion, can restrain the armed forces. At one point, the ambassador queries the deployment of Tornado aircraft since it would mean spending £70 million on new runways at Kandahar. ‘Sherard,’ says one cabinet minister. ‘I don’t know the difference between a Tornado and a Torpedo. I can’t possibly question the Chief of Defence Staff on this.’

While the author is not quite as good a writer as he thinks he is, some of the throwaway anecdotes are terrific, such as President Karzai’s love of Last Of The Summer Wine and the discovery that there aren’t any maps of the country in his palace.

He offers a frank glimpse into the whirl of global diplomacy. And while the book hammers one more nail into Gordon Brown’s reputation, not everyone comes out badly: Miliband emerges with  credit for his open-minded intellect, David Cameron for his rapid understanding of reality and Prince Charles is an unseen hero, taking Karzai walking at Balmoral to break a diplomatic deadlock.

But ultimately this is an insider’s devastating indictment of a diplomatic, political and military fiasco.

As we start to turn from a conflict that has cost so much money, wasted so many lives and caused so much damage, this timely book raises fundamental questions that remain valid even after the death of Osama Bin Laden, the man who provoked us a decade ago to repeat the obvious mistakes of history.

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