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Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign Hardcover – 23 May 2011
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‘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.’
‘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.
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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.
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
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.
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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