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.