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Cables from Kabul
Each Herrick rotation produces a wave of memoirs a year or two later. These range from the literate, literary and considered (e.g. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club) to the not so sublime. Armchair soldiers have plenty on which to feast. Rare then is an opportunity to view the Afghan conundrum from an entirely different perspective. Cowper-Cowles, a lifelong diplomat (and member of Brook’s, I noted), was first Ambassador then Special Representative in Kabul from 2007 to 2010. He is pragmatic, urbane, and a committed linguist, pro-military, and hates meetings. The tome is peppered with dry asides that leaven the rapportage of the diplomatic rounds that seem incessant in that troubled capital.
His story is frank, and he is not ashamed to lay out his admiration of President Karzai – whilst also leaving the reader in no doubt that he is aware of Karzai’s failings too. There are some fascinating asides: Karzai wanted to give Blair the Order of Wazir Akbar Khan, named after the son of Dost Mohammed. Students of Afghan history will spot the irony.
Most nations seem to have sent some of their brightest talent to Kabul. But too many have been competing for Karzai’s ear, and C-C relates his job of working for a consensus amongst the foreign interests there. Much of his time is devoted to maintaining the best relations with the US, and trying to restrain their more gung-ho ideas. Depressingly, C-C also relates how often he had to help save face for Karzai after another damaging leak. He points out that the endless conferences in various capitals produce the desired photo opportunities for self-important politicians, yet rarely produce tangible, measurable results.
He clearly holds Richard Holbrooke in high regard, and if there were one memoir that would possibly give greater insight into the campaign, it would have been Holbrooke’s. Sadly his untimely death has deprived us of that. Reading between the lines he is critical of Blair’s enthusiasm (again) to cling to Bush’s coat-tails ”I never quite understood why Britain took it upon itself to act as principal cheerleader for the American-led effort in Afghanistan.”
Cameron is praised for his quick grip of the situation, but in C-C’s view the UK is “too deferential to the military”, and to some of the unbudgeted outpourings from MoD Main Building. He points out that the US constitution, and its election cycle, hinder long-term progress in foreign conflicts, and draws uncomfortable parallels with their ultimate failure in Vietnam.
Above all the book spells out very clearly that there is no standalone military solution for Afghanistan: military progress must go hand in hand with improvements in the political environment. Cables charts C-C’s enthusiasm for the task. At the outset he is like a new headmaster, brimming with ideas. There is a predictable slide towards pessimism.
As for the endgame? C-C is a realist not an optimist. A final dose of pragmatism: ”The reasons for Muslim antipathy towards America, focused mainly on its one-sided approach to Israel/Palestine, remain.”
Verdict? A compelling read for Afghanophiles who need a balanced, rather than purely military, perspective.
Sherard Cowper-Coles HarperPress (PB) 2012