- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2011


By Sherard Cowper-Coles
HarperCollins, $25, 302 pages


“Sometimes life in Afghanistan seemed to be lived without Afghans,” is how former British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles describes the daily reality unspooling behind his Kabul embassy’s tall suicide barriers and barbed wire.

Barred from doing much aside from “substituting acquaintance for knowledge, activity for understanding, reporting for analysis, quantity of work for quality,” Mr. Cowper-Coles offers us a narrative that sheds valuable if selective light on the transformative 2007 to 2010 years. The text stands compellingly on its own, but for maximum insight it must be read alongside the WikiLeaks cables covering the same period.

Just like the cables, it offers tantalizing private glimpses into the power relationships between the men (and they are all men) who dominate the headlines: Richard Holbrooke, while passing through London, grumpily accepting an MI6 briefing on Afghanistan that clashes with plans to attend a theater show with his old friend, financier George Soros; President George W. Bush giving his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai “plenty of love, but it was almost unconditional.” When Mr. Karzai’s repeated visits to the U.S. Embassy became too reminiscent of a puppet leader visiting his overlord’s castle for instructions, the Americans considerately installed a secure video conferencing suite in his palace.

“Cables from Kabul” offers a remarkably honest judgment of the American approach to Afghanistan: unworkable. The campaign that America fought at the edge of its mental frontier shuddered on the shoals of cultural misunderstanding. Just as the majority of America’s political class didn’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, so it never understood that the Taliban are much more than a ragtag militia but largely represent Afghanistan’s Pashtun minority.

At 40 percent of the overall Afghan population, any effort to establish a “reliable client state by means of a dysfunctional multinational mandate” without dealing with the Taliban (and therefore the Pashtuns) was bound to fail.

With negotiations between the United States and the Taliban ongoing, this realization has been made belatedly. Mr. Cowper-Coles indicts Washington for committing a litany of faults that broke “all the rules of grand strategy: getting in without having any real idea of how to get out; almost willful misdiagnosis of the nature of the challenges; no coherent or consistent plan; mission creep on a heroic scale; diversion of attention and resources (to Iraq) at a critical stage in the adventure; poor choice of local allies, who rapidly became more of a problem than a solution; unwillingness to coopt the neighbors into the project, and thus address the mission-critical problem of external sanctuary and support; military advice long on institutional self-interest, but woefully short on serious objective analysis of the problems of pacifying a broken country with largely nonexistent institutions of government and security.” And the list goes on.

“Cables from Kabul” is published this year, the year when the level of Western involvement peaks. It is remarkably honest in sketching out - without blaming by name - the accelerating disaster of NATO’s Afghanistan project and the infuriating complacency with which Western contractors, corporations and militaries alike entered the world’s poorest country with a mandate for rehabilitation but treated it as a conveniently remote location for self-promotion and enrichment.

For light entertainment, the book contains anecdotes that could have been lifted from “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” the seminal account of American mistakes in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Mr. Cowper-Coles attends an embassy ball with a “From Blackhawk to black tie” dress code; tries to revive rowing in Kabul’s Kargha Lake through equipment donated by Eton’s bursar; and brings out to Kabul his “old schoolfriend Kit Hesketh Harvey” and his “outrageously camp satirical act, ‘Kit and the Widow.’ ” Surely a hilarious spectacle for the Afghan guests, too, had there been any, though perhaps for differing reasons.

Social life in Kabul is as hermetically sealed from the harsh realities outside as NATO soldiers locked in their fortresses. The incapacity to reach out effectively is another symptom of the same acute cognitive dissonance that has characterized the Western malaise since the Cold War ended.

The book stands at its best when its author is as searingly honest as when he admits that a withdrawal of British troops from the hellhole of Helmand “was not remotely practical politics for any British prime minister who wanted to preserve his relationship with Washington,” or when he describes the hard time members of the Obama administration give U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry for opposing the surge.

Mr. Eikenberry had explained in classified cables why he doubted the efficacy of sending a few more thousand troops into an insurgency that could not be resolved in the absence of a political settlement with the Taliban. He next saw his words printed in the New York Times. So dismayed was Mr. Eikenberry by the institutional resistance to his suggestions that, Mr. Cowper-Coles notes at the end of an official visit to Britain, he “looked and sounded as though he might almost ask for political asylum in Britain, rather than return to the maelstrom of life as ambassador in Kabul.”

Mr. Cowper-Coles‘ book is honest about the Afghan mess and part of a rising chorus of voices calling for a review of the beliefs undergirding the U.S. Afghan presence. But, keenly aware of history, he notes that it has always been thus. In 1966, a young Foreign Service officer just returned from Saigon wrote, “We are not trained nor equipped to do what must be done in rebuilding government in the villages; moreover it is an open-ended commitment in terms of both time and men, and could well lure us unwittingly into a strange sort of ‘revolutionary colonialism’ - our ends are ‘revolutionary,’ our means ‘quasi-colonial.’ ” The report’s author was Richard Holbrooke.

Iason Athanasiadis is a reporter for The Washington Times.

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