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5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning. At last we know about Afghanistan. THE non-fiction book of 2011., 2 Jun. 2011
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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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 9 Jun 2011 20:36:03 BDT
Last edited by the author on 9 Jun 2011 22:51:32 BDT
Mosafar says:
Having just completed "Cables From Kabul", I have come away wondering if I have truly just read the same book as "An Historian". Whilst Cowper-Coles's prose is thoughtful, insightful and able to offer pragmatic analysis based on extensive experience throughout, the above review was able to demonstrate none of these traits and appears instead to have merely transposed the reviewer's own partisan views.

A number of critical errors require both correction and contextualisation. Firstly, the reviewer refers to what he, apparently, believes Cowper-Coles believed were "crazed generals", both at home and in-Theatre. This is patently not the case; Cowper-Coles instead strongly and unambiguously praises a large number of senior officers. In fact, he goes out of his way to give credit to both British and American general officers for their understanding of the political context as well as their actual prosecution of counter-insurgency operations. In Kabul, these include the US Generals McNeill and McChrystal together with the British Gen Sir David Richards (now Chief of the Defence Staff) as Commanders ISAF, as well as Lt Gen Sir Nicholas Parker as Deputy Commander ISAF, all of whom are unequivocally held up as positive examples. As successive Commanders Task Force Helmand, the (then) Brigadiers John Lorimer, Andrew Mackay and Mark Carleton-Smith each receive laudatory comment; Brigadier Mackay in particular is singled out for his intelligent, nuanced approach to counter-insurgency. At home, Gen Nick Houghton and ACM Sir Jock Stirrup are each the subject of vignettes to their credit.

And this is where "An Historian" really swings off-piste. Whilst Cowper-Coles is clear that a political solution is absolutely the desired end-state for the Afghan conflict, his ultimate thesis is substantially more developed and multi-disciplinary than "An Historian" suggests. Cowper-Coles quotes Ambassador Bill Wood in stating that "There is no military solution. But, equally, there is no non-military solution". Cowper-Coles himself goes on to expand that "There had been huge improvements in health, in education, in infrastructure and, amazingly, in prosperity. All these could be endangered if we pulled our ground-holding forces back unilaterally, and left southern and eastern Afghanistan to be fought over by the Taliban and the narco-mafia who opposed them."

To put this into perspective, while "An Historian" uses Northern Ireland as an example, he somehow missed the point that peace and reconciliation were achieved only after thirty years of confrontation convinced those forces operating against the government that theirs was not a struggle that could be won militarily, and that their own political objectives could only be achieved by disarming and rejecting violence to enable negotiations with legitimate institutions.

"An Historian" also missed the point with his reference to plans for "a new £100m embassy". Far from being new, the project was intended to restore the original British Embassy, severely damaged during rioting in the mid-1990s. Cowper-Coles makes clear that the current Embassy facilities are unsatisfactory in terms of both domestic and working accommodation, with office and bed spaces occupied in converted shipping containers. It should also be noted that the current Embassy site and building is leased from Bulgaria, of all countries, presumably at rather less than token rates. Cowper-Cole's own views on necessary expenditure are made clear by his regret that two purpose-built passenger aircraft were not purchased for the use of the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet members during the latter years of the Blair Administration.

From his careful consideration of the challenging conditions on the ground, and his pathos for those civilians and military at all levels of authority charged with dealing with them, Cowper-Coles would undoubtedly agree with Teddy Roosevelt - "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena". Ever the professional diplomat in all matters, Cowper-Coles's scorn shows through only once, where he pours deserved invective on what he sees as the un-informed setting themselves up as self-proclaimed experts based on wilfully selective reading of partial information from the comfort of armchairs at home in London. In this case, he was referring to the leader writers of The Times. "An Historian", however, should perhaps take note.

Posted on 17 Jun 2011 13:28:58 BDT
Mosafar says:
An Historian,

I note that, since posting my comment above, your review has been modified with the addition of two sentences regarding Gen Petraeus' extant policies in Kabul. This does not in any way change the critique of your review as a whole, which does a profound disservice to the developed argument presented by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles in "Cables From Kabul". Sweeping generalisations and massive over-simplification of both Sir Sherard's argument in isolation and the broader conflict as a whole are unhelpful and indeed dangerous when approaching an issue of the magnitude Cowper-Coles presents.

Much is hyperbole. It should come as no surprise that a member of the Diplomatic Service would be instructed in the language of the country to which he is posted (Sir Sherard also speaks Arabic and Hebrew; a number of diplomats and Service personnel are trained to a high degree of fluency in Pashto and Dari). The description of "Kabul under siege" will come as something of a surprise to the locals. The FCO's policy of permitting former diplomats to publish their memoirs is quoted directly in the preface.

Accord (or "compromise") with the Taliban is apparently confused with, at best, appeasement, and at worst capitulation. The example given of Northern Ireland must again be addressed. Implicit in your text is the suggestion that peace came to that Province at the behest of a single Prime Minister's Damascene conversion in terms of strategic policy in that theatre of operations. Whilst history will certainly credit John Major with much more than his contemporaries did, it must be reiterated that the peace process came about only after an entire generation of conflict during which the government held the line against the paramilitaries, effectively forcing them to the negotiating table. Additionally, channels of communication with the Provisional IRA had been maintained via the intelligence services throughout the period of the Troubles, certainly as far back as the early-1970s.

Similarly, the Taliban can and must ultimately come to the negotiating table, but under no circumstances does Sir Sherard's argument suggest that this be allowed to happen under the Taliban's own unilaterally-imposed terms. Musa Qala demonstrated the worth of any accord under such circumstances, whilst Hamid Karzai, together with many ordinary Afghans at home and in the diaspora, remembers only too well the fate of Najibullah.

Whilst an Afghan solution is absolutely the required goal, Sir Sherard is clear that this cannot therefore be achieved without international support which must of necessity include military and security elements. Failure to establish a proper security framework will mean, in his words, that "we risk finding out that we get out, militarily, only to have to get back in, perhaps several decades from now, and in another form".

It is clear from Cowper-Coles' argument that a military element to any eventual political solution is inevitable and is required. Whilst Sir Sherard carefully and fairly critiques current strategy, his objection is neither to the presence of troops, nor necessarily to the numbers involved but rather to the manner of their employment. The necessity to hold ground until a political solution can be effected runs as a constant theme throughout.

The challenge, in Cowper-Coles' own words, is to "turn the temporary and local gains won at such cost by the military into long-term strategic gains". This, he is absolutely clear, cannot be achieved through the overnight withdrawal of foreign troops. Referring pointedly to domestic pressures in the United States to withdraw forces regardless of conditions on the ground, Sir Sherard relates how "the Foreign Secretary pointed out... in what I came to call the Miliband Paradox, the irony was that the more US troops were needed in Afghanistan in the long run, the greater the pressure for them to leave. The more stable the country, the easier it would be to keep them there for as long as necessary".

The fact remains that Sir Sherard's narrative nowhere depicts "crazed generals... auditioning for Dr Strangelove". His thesis instead outlines the need for a political solution, with strong military support remaining until such time as effective resolution is achieved. To repeat, "There is no military solution. But equally, there is no non-military solution".
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