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Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign [Hardcover]

Sherard Cowper-Coles
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
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Book Description

23 May 2011

A frank and honest memoir by Britain’s former ambassador to Kabul which provides a unique, high-level insight into Western policy in Afghanistan.

For three years, from 2007 until 2010, Sherard Cowper-Coles was on the diplomatic frontline in Kabul as the West’s mission in Afghanistan sank deeper into crisis. First as British Ambassador and, later, as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative, he witnessed at first hand a struggle that by the time he left was swallowing billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money a year, and had already cost the lives of more than 2,000 coalition troops, including nearly 350 British soldiers, as well as tens of thousands of Afghans, in and out of uniform.

In Cables from Kabul he offers a ringside seat in this unfolding drama in a high-octane narrative that transports the reader from the backstreets of Kabul and fly-blown villages of the Helmand Valley to the corridors of power in London and Washington. Packed with colourful portraits of major political and diplomatic players such as President Karzai and the US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, the book gives a rich flavour of embassy life in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

With his unique, high-level insight into the West’s policy in Afghanistan, Cowper-Coles raises fundamental questions about the viability of the whole Afghanistan project, even after the death of bin Laden. While paying fulsome tribute to the bravery of our soldiers and the tactical success they are undoubtedly achieving at a local level, he asks whether this will be enough to secure within three years the wider strategic goal of stabilising Afghanistan to the point where the Afghan authorities can govern the country without outside intervention.

As Our Man in Kabul, nobody is better placed to tell this story. Powerful, witty and astonishingly frank, Cables from Kabul explains how we got into the quagmire of Afghanistan, and how we can get out of it.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; 1st edition (23 May 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007432011
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007432011
  • Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 4.5 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 310,762 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sherard Cowper-Coles is one of the most respected authorities on foreign affairs in the country. He has held a string of high-profile diplomat posts, both in the UK and overseas, most recently as the British Ambassador to Kabul and the Foreign Secretary's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Product Description


‘The clearest, best informed, and most honest account yet of why and how Britain was drawn deeper and deeper into the Afghan war, by the man who knows more about it than just about anyone else. If you want to understand what really happened, you absolutely have to read this book.’
John Simpson

‘Unquestionably the most important record yet of the diplomatic wrangling that has accompanied the slow military encirclement of western forces in Afghanistan. Extraordinary’ William Dalrymple, Observer

‘Vividly portrays the plight of an envoy who really cared about his brief, and felt unable to keep silent about looming failure in a vital region where western intervention has been bungled’ Max Hastings, Sunday Times

‘A highly readable and witty account by one of our most dynamic and impressive diplomats’ Daily Telegraph

‘A supremely urbane, frustrated and brilliant valedictory diagnosis of the problems of Afghanistan’s recent past’ Sunday Telegraph

“In my experience our former Ambassador in Afghanistan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles is spot on in his book Cables from Kabul” Matthew Parris, The Times

“Outstanding” Julian Glover, Guardian

“This is a wonderful book” Spectator

‘a gripping account of failed efforts at politics and peacemaking in that troubled country…eminently readable’ The Tablet

About the Author

Sherard Cowper-Coles is one of the most respected authorities on foreign affairs in the country. He has held a string of high-profile diplomat posts, both in the UK and overseas, most recently as the British Ambassador to Kabul and the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Punches Pulled? 20 Feb 2012
By Loz
This book received rave reviews in the papers but I found it disappointing.

It's not really clear if Cowper-Coles wanted to write a personal memoir of his time involved in Afghanistan or a measured critique of Britain's role there, but for me it doesn't quite work on either score.

There is much description of meetings attended, ministers briefed, parties enjoyed, wheels oiled, as well as frequent genuinely witty or illuminating vignettes, but for a personal memoir it is simply not personal enough. For example, we know Mr Cowper-Coles has at least one son but no idea if he has other children or a wife. We know he left the diplomatic service having failed to get the "top posting" he had been promised but no information is provided on what must have been a hugely emotional decision for a dedicated career diplomat.

But there is no need for personal details to be provided if what is really being written is analysis of Britain (and western) efforts in Afghanistan. The problem here is that there simply isn't enough analysis - Mr Cowper-Coles drops tantalising hints throughout of his disenchantment with the process but never pulls it together into a convincing whole. It's as if ultimately he was unable or unwilling to write what one feels could be a much focussed or more hard-hitting book. There are some conclusions at the end but interestingly none relate directly to the diplomatic side at all.

The second half of the book, covering his time as a Special Representative is particularly frustrating. Cowper-Coles has many warm words for his American opposite number, Richard Holbrooke, but Holbrooke comes across as an incredibly difficult person to work with. The author is perhaps unwilling to speak ill of the dead but once again the analysis is lacking.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good But Not Great Book 12 July 2011
By Simon
This book covers a fascinating period of the Campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The first half of the book provides great context as to what has happened and why. Unfortunately, I felt that the latter half of the book then lost direction a little. That said, the final 2 chapters (which pull together some conclusions & lessons learned) are excellent.

I don't know how much of the original material was removed by the FCO and/or MOD during the security clearance process, but some big muscle moves in the Campaign are glossed over by an author who must have been right at the heart of the action. I didn't necessarily choose the book for sensation, but further insight into some of these fascinating events was on my agenda.

In sum, an easy and interesting read. If you are particularly involved in the Afghan Campaign, this is probably a MUST Read. However, what could have been a great book (Obama's Wars by Woodward) is ultimately just a good book.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Cowper-Coles has written a fantastic book that describes in fluid and absorbing prose, the trials and tribulations of working in several high profile diplomatic jobs in Afghanistan. Although not overtly negative, he nevertheless provides a convincing critique of many of the aspects of the Afghan campaign. He criticises the 'more troops the better' mentality that MOD officials in the UK as well as, and more importantly, those in the US are guilty of. He recounts the frustrations of being the smaller partner in a coalition, and the seemingly impossible task of convincing the US of anything, and the seemingly never ending bureaucracy inherent in the modern state system. That's not to say that he believes the whole enterprise is fruitless. By the end of the book, in 2011, we see the US announcing a commitment to political development within Afghanistan along with further military intervention, something that had been lobbied for from the start. This, however, is followed by a blistering attack on the reasons, feasibility and commitment to the war in the last chapter by Cowper-Coles, but one that provides a brilliant ending to the book, and a summary of all that has preceded.

The message of the book was clear, and showed great insight. However, by far the most interesting part of the book is the presentation of the world of high profile diplomacy, that so few have access to.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Having read numerous soldier's accounts of Iraq and Afghanistan, I was looking forward to reading the details of our man in Kabul. Mr Cowper-Coles says that the book is based on his memories of his time in Afghanistan rather than official minutes and notes (which are presumably covered by the 30-year rule).

The result is an interesting if winding read through his diplomatic career as UK Ambassador to Afghanistan. He is most interesting when writing about the life of the embassy and the job of being a diplomat which is a real contrast both to the military's experience and to the media representation of conflict. The only problem is that Mr Cowper-Coles is much too diplomatic to reveal very much, doesn't provide much of a strategic overview and whenever possible links back everyone he knows to whether or not they were at Oxford with him.

I had hoped for an insightful analysis of the conflict, the politics, the personalities, the clash between diplomats, military and politicians - a sort of in-depth Economist-style approach. Instead, the books ends up as "I-was-there" account and he doesn't seem to achieve very much which is probably quite harsh.

It adds to the gamut of books about the Afghan war in a useful way but we are still waiting for the definitive read - which is probably only going to come once NATO forces have withdrawn
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent insight to the complexities of diplomacy in Afganistan
An insightful commentary into the political and diplomatic dynamics of Afganistan. Where the shortfalls in skills and resources lay and how the main effort changed over time. Read more
Published 5 months ago by SHJ
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable book
Read both his books now, very very thoughtful views on our recent history. Unlike some, he doesn't try to undermine others, he leaves those decisions to you
Published 8 months ago by Mr. R. A. Horrocks
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating!
Fascinating! More than ten years since the start of the war and “we are still stumbling round in the foothills of serious political engagement with the parties to the Afghan... Read more
Published 9 months ago by David Yates
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on Afghanistan.
Very good overview of the situation in Afghanistan. Clear and an easy and interesting read by a diplomat who has served in many different locations.
Published 10 months ago by Julian B Childs
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, thought-provoking and very well-written.
An excellent read from someone who has succinctly hit the nail on the head! A well-considered thesis on what we have got wrong, the missed opportunities and the lessons we might... Read more
Published 12 months ago by D G BOWYER
4.0 out of 5 stars A clear engaging and lucid account.
I was totally engaged by this well written account. I could not put it down ans now feel better informed about this foolish war.
Published 12 months ago by Edmund
3.0 out of 5 stars not too impressive
disappointing book compared to the second book. would have not bought the second boom if i read that first. a shame nice guy
Published 13 months ago by Jambro
2.0 out of 5 stars Repetative
This was a really disappointing read. The content was mostly repetitive and constantly focused on the writers frustration with the perceived (or real) lack of action in government. Read more
Published 13 months ago by MICHELLEMURPHY
5.0 out of 5 stars Cables from Kabul
This is an excellent read. To the point, funny, so well written - thoroughly to be recommended. Sorry that is all I have to say!!
Published 14 months ago by Jim Morrison
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read
Covers much of the behind the scenes detail that one never normally sees. Very interesting to see how the great powers are still not certain why they are in Afghanistan. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Graham
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