The South Asia Channel

Cables from Kabul

When I was in Kabul in June, I found the various embassies and military installations about as easy to get into as a nuclear bunker.  And I would guess that government probably seems that impenetrable, too, to the outsider — protected by secrecy and omerta that is as strong as any concrete blast wall. Cables ...

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

When I was in Kabul in June, I found the various embassies and military installations about as easy to get into as a nuclear bunker.  And I would guess that government probably seems that impenetrable, too, to the outsider — protected by secrecy and omerta that is as strong as any concrete blast wall.

Cables From Kabul, the recently-released book from Sherard Cowper-Coles, is the equivalent of a guided tour around the inner workings of the international community in Afghanistan. It is a warts-and-all tour, with institutional failings laid bare. It is written by a man who knows those institutions well, having been British Ambassador to Kabul 2007-2009, and then the British equivalent to deceased U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke (to whom the book is dedicated) between 2009 and 2010. The book has caused controversy in Britain — and also been greatly praised — for its pessimism about the war in Afghanistan, its trenchant attacks on Britain’s military leadership, and its unprecedented frankness about the inner workings of diplomacy. Although it will be of less interest to the American reader, it is rare to hear any senior figure with such experience of Afghanistan speak out so candidly, and at the end he addresses himself to specifically American questions.

I am not a neutral reviewer. I worked for Cowper-Coles in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and have great respect for him. I also saw and commented on his book in draft. In terms of comment on the quality of the book, let me limit myself to saying that the war in Afghanistan, in its absurdities and tragedies, needs a chronicler as pitiless and brilliant as Evelyn Waugh; this book is the closest that I have seen anyone come to that ideal. I found it a hugely enjoyable read, even though I knew most of the stories in it already. In case readers think I am parti pris, I will say no more about this, and will simply consider what this very British book can tell American readers about what they need to know about the war in Afghanistan.

The book is structured very much like a diary, and is at its freshest and funniest when describing events in Kabul (parts one through three) — including Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s threat to invade Pakistan, and Cowper-Coles starting a formal conference call with then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by wishing her a Happy Valentine’s Day. Part Four deals with his time as Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most noteworthy for me in this section was that Cowper-Coles would travel for an entire day simply in order to catch Richard Holbrooke for ten minutes’ conversation during a stopover visit the latter was making to Belgium — a vivid illustration of the inequalities of the Transatlantic Alliance. The American reader, however who wants Cowper-Coles conclusions on the war, and recommendations for the future, should turn immediately to Chapter 25, in Part Five of the book, where these are set out concisely and bluntly.

"The first [lesson]," he says, "is the theory and practice of counter-insurgency. The second is the difficulties of managing military campaigns in a modern democracy. And the third is the fitness of the American Republic successfully to prosecute quasi-imperial expeditionary activity of the kind in which it is engaged in Afghanistan."

He is skeptical about counter-insurgency, which he says has become a cult, one for which "qualifying involves at least as much faith as works" — not because he disagrees with its precepts, but because he does not think COIN tactics provide a solution in Afghanistan. Unity of command, troop numbers, Afghan politics, regional support, and the timescale for our engagement are all inadequate, Cowper-Coles concludes. Furthermore, even at its most ambitious, the Coalition’s military strategy cannot subdue all pockets of resistance to the Afghan government — and in those areas where it does succeed, the Coalition does not plan to do so for ever. Furthermore, it is unclear, Cowper-Coles writes, that Afghan forces are anywhere near ready to take over — a point which is so important that I will return to it below.

His second lesson is not the obvious one — that military campaigns which are subject to political approval are always at risk of not getting the time or resources to finish the job — but almost the reverse. He suggests that public attitudes to the military, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, have become overly reverent and insufficiently critical of war propaganda and strategy. The reason, he suggests, is that most people have no direct experience of military service: "In an age… where there is no National Service, and only a minority of politicians have any real military knowledge or experience (and then only through short-service commissions or time in the cadet corps at school)," he writes, "attitudes towards the military are much more deferential and less balanced."

As for the third lesson, Cowper-Coles’ phrase "American Republic" perhaps deliberately evokes the Roman Republic, whose acquisition of overseas responsibilities and territories led, in part, to the sacrifice of individual liberties at home. This dilemma of how to balance international engagement and war with domestic freedoms was answered differently by America’s founding fathers, and the book briefly looks at the brakes which the U.S. Constitution, designed to curb executive power at home, puts on the U.S.’s ability to conduct wars overseas.  

In addition to this constitutional restraint, Cowper-Coles suggests that the U.S. State Department restrained itself from intervening, sometimes to the point of not being as tough with the Afghan government as it should have been. He muses:

Perhaps it is all because Americans don’t believe they are imperialists anyway. And certainly they aren’t interested in ruling other people, or for very long. But successful [stabilization] requires strategic stamina, massive resources, lots of time and plenty of ambition. I wondered whether, in an entirely benevolent sense, America had any of these qualities for successful empire-building.  

In these paragraphs, under the cloak of politeness, an act of prestidigitation has taken place: what we like today to call "nation-building" has become "empire-building."  But perhaps this book’s most subversive proposal is that the two really end up being the same thing. Richard Holbrooke himself once made the comparison, as the book points out: as a young man fresh back from Saigon, he wrote of the attempt to rebuild government in the villages of Vietnam that it "could well lure us unwittingly into a strange sort of ‘revolutionary colonialism’ – our ends are ‘revolutionary,’ our means quasi- colonial." 

The emphasis of the book is on the need for a political settlement with the Taliban, but I suspect that the author is too shrewd to imagine that this alone can solve the problems of Afghanistan. He seems to suggest that our own excessive interference in Afghan affairs, and the dependency that it has created, are at the root of the country’s problems.  As this former ambassador to Kabul, with three years’ experience of Afghanistan at the most senior level, declares towards the end of the book – channeling, perhaps, the spirit of T.E. Lawrence:

"Often it may be better to let the Afghans themselves do a job badly than for us to do it for them. Even if the Afghan way may be less effective, and more corrupt and inefficient, than the Western way, it may be wiser to let the Afghans make their own mistakes, and learn from them. However imperfect the results of such a process, they may last longer than attempts by outsiders to buck the Afghan market."

Gerard Russell is a research fellow on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Harvard Kennedy School and lived in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.

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