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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Insight into the diplomacy that underlies the Afghanistan campaign
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...
Published on 31 May 2011 by A Customer

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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
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...
Published on 12 July 2011 by Simon


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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Insight into the diplomacy that underlies the Afghanistan campaign, 31 May 2011
This review is from: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (Hardcover)
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.

Recommended.
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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
This review is from: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (Hardcover)
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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Punches Pulled?, 20 Feb 2012
This review is from: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (Hardcover)
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.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Knight's Tale, 12 July 2011
By 
James Denselow "James Denselow" (London UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (Hardcover)
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'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable book, 15 Feb 2014
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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
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting if slightly disappointing look at diplomat's look at Afghanistan, 25 Jun 2013
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ManchesterMonkey (Manchester, England) - See all my reviews
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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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26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Cables from Kabul, 18 July 2011
This review is from: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (Hardcover)
I bought this book after reading rave reviews in the Press, hoping to find definitive guidlelines about the political and diplomatic events behind the scenes in Afghanistan. What a disappointment. The author is clearly a very able diplomat and served in Afghanistan uring a critical phase and could have given great insights if he had chosen. Unfortunately the hype was better than the book. Sherard Cowper-Coles fails to deliver. Firstly, his book is not about cables from Kabul. Other than two heavily censored (redacted) cables of little import there is nothing of the dialogue between government in Britain and the Ambassador to Kabul. Instead we are treated to a 300 page catalogue of the hundreds of meetings, parties, receptions, visits and trips he made around the country without in any serious way giving any details of the actual exchanges of importance. Indeed, in his own preface, the author states that he has 'had no acess to the extensive records I lodged in London of every signifiant offficical interaction I had over more than three years'. Instead, he says, he has relied on memory and on four daily lines of scribble in a rough and ready diary, telling him where he was but not what he was really doing or thinking.His memory is first class on the trivia and lapses seriously (probably hampered by official restrictions) on the important. The real substance of the book comes in the final two chapters. But what an exercise in tedium and the utter futility of his role as Ambassador before getting to these relatively unimportant nuggets. Sherard Cowper-Coles says in his acknowledgements that his agent always thought he had at least one book in him. Sadly this is not it.What a colosssal missed opportunity here for someone so well placed to tell it as it is.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cables From Kabul, 20 Jun 2011
This review is from: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (Hardcover)
Sherard Cowper-Coles has written an extremely readable and informative book. He records his time as Ambassador to Afghanistan and subsequently as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan to Foreign Secretary David Miliband. If you want to know how a senior British diplomat operates in a war zone - it is here in this book. His word sketches of the main characters in this still unfolding conflict add and enhance his story. The book confirms that it is truly America's war with her allies playing supplementary roles, which takes nothing away from the bravery and sacrifice of the allied troops on the battlefield. What does come starkly across is that it is a conflict of 'tactics without strategy'. Sadly Cowper-Coles' diplomatic skills and patience were unable to impact the American policy of `fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country'.
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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning. At last we know about Afghanistan. THE non-fiction book of 2011., 2 Jun 2011
By 
An Historian (London, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign (Hardcover)
For the first time an insider, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has blown the lid.
And what an insider.
Not only does Sir Sherard speak Pashtun (yes, really) and know all the key player personally, his stints in embassies in the USA, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere (a meteoric Foreign Office career by any standard) give him a world view that even many senior diplomats never get to experience. And, armed with a first in classics from Oxford, he writes beautifully and precisely with enormous sensitivity and insight.
Britain has now been at war in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. The cost to the British taxpayer is apparently 6 billion a year(at least 3p on income tax to put that number in context). More importantly, brave British soldiers are risking their lives daily. And far too many have already tragically lost lives and limbs.
And for what?
We know that Afghanistan is a graveyard for empires. Britain had no luck in the 19th century when it was the world's superpower. Even the Red Army - which crushed the Wermacht and held the whole of Eastern Europe in an iron grip for nearly half a century - could not handle the Afghans.
Britain went into Afghanistan with the Americans to destroy Al Qaeda but the terrorists are present in Pakistan, in Yemen and elsewhere. So do we invade those countries too? Presumably yes - if you follow the doctrine of liberal interventionism so beloved of Tony Blair and now David Cameron.
What exactly is the end-game?
Sir Sherard's thesis is that, despite the skill and huge courage of the troops on the ground, the military solution is not the answer. An accord will have to be made with the Taliban.
Horrible thought: but then having Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams in positions of authority did not have many of us dancing for joy. But that much under-rated Prime Minister John Major realized that, to end an insurgency, you do need to talk to your enemies and achieve compromise. The result: peace in Northern Ireland.
In Afghanistan however, crazed generals (Sir Sherard puts this very tactfully and of course would not use the word 'crazed') shower bombs and rockets like they were auditioning for Dr Strangelove. He is very specific about General Petraeus's use of increased violence. "Such a military-focused approach risks making Afghanistan safe not for better governance, but for the warlords and narco-mafias...the poor Afghan people...could be the losers" (P288-289).
One British General (apparently) wanted to deploy troops in Afghanistan only because that was a way of preserving the defence budget which threatened troop reductions.
The politicians (mostly) come across as a supine bunch with only the faintest comprehension of the history and tribal complexity of Afghanistan.
Despite all the tragedy, there is humour in the book as Sir Sherard struggled (not always successfully) to convey the British viewpoint to the prickly Hamid Karzai in the torrid conditions of Kabul under siege. Endlessly Sir Sherard had to escort London-based generals and politicans to the front line. There are shades of Graham Greene in his well-drawn descriptions.
On just about every page, it is clear there are parallels with another very similar war which was fought and lost, also with politicans and generals saying in unison: 'We are winning'. That war was Vietnam - and it cost the USA 50,000 lives.
The horrid Harold Wilson had the good sense to keep the UK out of that one.
I am surprised that the Foreign Office allowed such a frank expose to be published. Perhaps the mandarins know that the game is up.
As for Sir Sherard, he is clearly an extraordinarily brave and gifted public servant with much more to offer to his country. The book is already a best-seller and will be the non-fiction triumph of 2011.
If I have one criticism, it would be that I would like to have had more analysis by Sir Sherard of the situation across the border in Pakistan.
A postscript: apparently the New Labour Government was seriously considering a 100 million (sic) new embassy in Kabul. But happily for the British taxpayer (and unusually for New Labour) this Dome-style extravagance was not to be. The British Embassy is in fact a modest affair. Not so the (taxpayer-funded) British Council Kabul HQ whose opulent lawns Sir Sherard had to requisition for a function too large for the Embassy!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent insight to the complexities of diplomacy in Afganistan, 16 May 2014
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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. The views of the prevailing local political infrastructure and leadership provide a look into what the future may hold for this country and its relationship with the countries who were engaged in the conflict and reconstruction.
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Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign
Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign by Sherard Cowper-Coles (Hardcover - 23 May 2011)
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