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. Did Holbrooke achieve anything? The role appears to have been a complete waste of time and to have involved quite extraordinary waste of time and money with vast numbers of expensive meals, flights and conferences. But what does Cowper-Coles think? - he clearly entertains serious doubts, but there is no conclusion drawn of the whole episode. Once again, one feels his is pulling his punches.
There are other irritations. Did I say we got little personal information? We may not know if Cowper-Coles is married but we do know which Prep school and Oxford College he attended, the club he belongs to and key diplomatic postings he has had. It would have grated a little less if there had been some acknowledgement of just what a privileged bubble he occupies. There is a sense that the book is written more for his friends and colleagues than for the general reader. He is so careful to be so nice about everyone he works with or meets with, but there is never an explanation or justification for what diplomats do, how embassies function and why it matters. Ironically there is a rather self-satisfied air to the book whenever he addresses any aspect of the diplomatic service, where everyone is very clever and terribly hard working and efficient.
Is this worth reading? There are certainly much better books on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, "Losing Small Wars" and the incomparable "Imperial Life in the Emerald City", for example. It is interesting for the (frequently amusing) sidelight it shines on the diplomatic life and efforts in a war zone, but there was the potential for a much better book than this.