Cables From Kabul - The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Harper Press, 2011
Joining the ever expanding series of memoirs from former officials involved in the Afghan and Iraqi wars, Sherard Cowper-Coles' book attempts to "illuminate some of the political and diplomatic aspects" of the war in Afghanistan. As British ambassador in Kabul between 2007-2010, in what he described as "the best and the worst of diplomatic postings," Cowper-Coles has written an immensely readable and insightful account of what appears to be a structurally flawed expedition.
Cowper-Coles describes his position at the Embassy as being "the headmaster of a rundown but generally happy and successful prep school." The book is full of diplomatic gems such as the naming of the Embassy bar as the 'Inn Fidel' and the excitement of a beard growing competition. Cowper-Coles comes across as a likeable narrator throughout and any potential disgruntlement with an institution that ultimately failed to match his ambitions is largely hidden. The former ambassador is fulsome in his praise for those he worked with, but is critical of the structure of the British presence in the country, with the rapid cycling of tour rotation leading to an 'addiction to high allowances' which created a 'post-conflict stabilisation industry.' The problem was more pronounced for the military where the "six-month rotation system risked the British Army in Helmand continually reinventing the wheel." What is more, upon arrival each brigadier would do what 'soldiers expect to do' and launch a major kinetic operation, regardless of the subtleties of counterinsurgency theory.
The book is critical of the often dysfunctional relationship between the military and politicians. In the United Kingdom, the government was "subject to continual pressure from the British military" to send more troops and resources to Afghanistan, and according to the author the Ministry of Defence "fell short of the standards for clear and objective advice" to the political leadership. They were particularly guilty of regularly giving overly optimistic advice that can be surmised as "progress is being made but challenges remain." That they were allowed to get away with this is due to a combination of politicians' ignorance, as "only a minority of politicians have any real military knowledge or experience," combined with their fear of being labelled unpatriotic by the right wing press. Cowper-Coles's description of the problem is succinct, his preference for "optimism founded in realism' is a stark contrast to what he sees as the military's 'optimism found in unrealism," characterised by General Richard's description of 'astronomical' progress being made. Despite these criticisms Cowper-Coles was obviously impressed by the military, admitting that 'every helicopter ride was a thrill' and that 'it was fun, dressing up in desert camouflage, donning helmets and body armour, and leaping in and out of helicopters and armoured personnel carriers'.
Throughout the book some of Cowper-Coles most fascinating insights are a reflection not on Afghanistan, but rather his American allies. He wonders "whether the US was fit for the quasi-imperial purpose it had assumed?" and attending a conference in the US describes the "sense of a great leviathan rolling forward, spending money, establishing programmes, without knowing what everything was for." Yet Cowper-Coles is clearly conscious that the only way to make a difference was to work with the Americans, as it was an "illusion" that Britain could have "an independent strategy" and "all of us knew that the real decisions were taken in Washington."
After being promoted to become the Foreign Secretary's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Cowper-Coles chronicles his attempts to influence the Americans which involved following Richard Holbrooke's 'flying circus' across the globe. Although the book is dedicated to Holbrooke, Obama's late Afghanistan point man comes across as a strange and distracted figure, who, despite being acknowledged as a intellectual heavyweight, flittered through meetings checking his blackberry or answering calls and often seemed more interested in fine dining than in really hearing Britain's arguments on what to do in Afghanistan. The circus of Special Representatives meetings is savaged for substituting "form for substance, discussion for delivery, activity for real achievement" while the attempts to persuade the Americans of a more political approach were 'ultimately fruitless'.
Cowper-Cole admits that he never "quite understood why Britain took it upon itself to act as principal cheerleader for the American-led effort" at "military colonialism" in Afghanistan. Despite how closely he worked alongside the Americans the difference in values is made clear, in one particular incident Karzai decided to execute some prisoners who were eventually gunned down whilst fleeing, the US ambassador describing the killings as "a beacon of hope for the future of Afghanistan." Engagement and access to President Karzai is another central theme of the book and while we learn that the Afghan leader loves trains and effervescent vitamin tablets, ultimately Cower-Coles admits that he's not the right man for the job as he is a 'flawed product' lacking the necessary skills of needed to run the country.
The former ambassador argues that what is needed in Afghanistan is a focus on political solutions, backed by the military, and a regional scope that brings the multitude of international actors into a big tent. Sound byte friendly slogans such as "Clear, Hold and Build" are dismissed as not 'really a strategy' but rather 'little more than a tactic'. You'd think that Cowper-Coles would be pleased by Prime Minister David Cameron's words given in Afghanistan in July, when he urged the Taliban to "stop fighting, put down your weapons and join the political process". However Cowper-Coles thinks that the West today "are not serious abut solving Afghanistan, they're serious about getting out" and his book concludes by bemoaning an "enterprise [that] has proved to be a model of how not to go about such things." He finishes by updating one of Lawrence of Arabia's strategies that it is "better to let the Afghans themselves do a job badly than for us to do it for them."
Originally published in International Affairs