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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Farewell Kabul

Christina Lamb                  Wm Collins, April 2015

One caveat: although acknowledging their role in Osama bin Laden’s upbringing (and possible funding) Lamb barely pursues the Saudi connection. But then the chances of any foreign journalist to obtain access to the Saudi power brokers are zero; for a woman, the chance would not register. She does however note that Saudi Airline offered discounts to jihadists!


It is depressing to think that with the cut backs in British broadsheets it is unlikely that a British journalist will ever be able to become so immersed in the affairs of a foreign country as has Lamb.

Framed as a memoir, Farewell Kabul is in effect a critique of the Western world’s escapades in the Afghan region.  It is difficult to conceive of any one better suited for this role than Christina Lamb, who has been visiting the region since the Millenium, developing an unprecedented network of contacts in the region. The near obligatory  review of previous British Afghan wars sets the depressing tone  for this book. FK is full of insights which I had not picked up elsewhere, although she leans heavily in the second half on Robert Gates’ Duty (reviewed here).  Because of the interconnections of foreign policy FK also illuminates the West’s tussles in Iraq, and relations with most Middle Eastern and Asian players. Bush’s determination to launch a war in Iraq, on the back of the misguided assumption that the Afghan campaign is wrapped up, is just plain terrifying.


Lamb chronicles numerous examples of Pakistani duplicity, of the corruption endemic in all layers of Afghan society (with ministers serially buying villas in Dubai’s Palm development, a hospital generator paid for by British newspaper readers going awol before installation, etc). She sets out the naivety and laxness within Britain’s DFiD, and its inability to work constructively with the British Army.


Having known Hamid Karzai for years, she retained good access once he became (to his own surprise) president. Thus for a British public educated by government spin through the Afghan campaign, it is useful to learn of the Afghan reaction to crises. Strangely she does not seem to have realised that the invisible Mrs Karzai is not invisible because of Karzai’s championing traditional Afghan chauvinism (which he does), but because she spent many months safely ensconced in a mansion in Surrey!  Lamb’s friendship with Karzai does not dull her objectivity: his lack of management experience is laid out plainly.


There is of course a rich seam of what American politicians would call ‘mis-steps’, and I would call errors, to narrate. The ultimately very successful hunt for OBL is full of them; the Iraqi campaign likewise. She clearly understands the nuances of tribal relationships in the regions that seemed to escape most of the ISAF military and certainly their political masters. Lest you wonder if this book may be a little touchy-feely – it is not: Lamb is a mistress of devastating statistics where necessary. Too much of the billions funnelled in Afghanistan has ended up funding ministers’ and warlords’ palaces in the Gulf. She also lambasts the UN for chronic misdirection of funds.

Not only does Lamb have an unprecedented network of contacts, she also walks the walk to a greater degree than most journalists. A particularly harrowing section concerns her embed with 3 Para, when the patrol from Zumbelay which she is accompanying, is ambushed. A mistress of the telling aside, a particularly fine one gives the lie to the claim that John Reid was on top of his job as Defence Secretary. Her photographer “later went to photograph Reid for a profile and, spotting a rather grand globe in his office, asked him to point to Afghanistan for the picture. He couldn’t find it.”


The saga of why the British chose Helmand to conquer/govern reflects poorly on both our government and military. Idiocy is clearly implied when an initial military planning team was headed by a submariner. She comprehensively lays out the reasons for the failure of one of Blair’s original excuses for the war – the poppy eradication programme. She is a strong advocate of the line that one of the reasons for the British military’s failure, at least in the early years of the campaign, was that it was still focussed primarily on the Iraq war. Moreover, she relates a tellingly over-confident quote from Gen Sir David Richards in 2005 (which I do not think featured in his own autobiography!) “The Americans had just 130 people, we’re putting in more than 3,000 and a huge cross-government effort, if you were Taliban you would think this could spell curtains.


When (American) General McNeill took over from Richards as ISAF commander in 2007, he heaped scorn on British strategy and reversed many policies. Even once McNeill was in charge, there was a frightening disconnect between ISAF and Op Enduring Freedom, which was the umbrella for American special forces and others. Moreover it is now clear that ISAF nations left it far too late to improve the Afghan Police to a state in which it could enjoy the population’s confidence.  


Lamb appears to have developed surprisingly good contacts within Pakistan, and explains than nation’s troubled relationship with the US in some depth. American taxpayers will no doubt fume at the evidence that much US aid to Pakistan has been ironically rechannelled to jihadists. For the last 20-30 years it would appear that the Pakistanis have been taking the US for a (very expensive) ride. That the Pakistan nation has remained in the thrall of its military is an unbelievable curse. Lamb chronicles numerous examples of outrageous behaviour by this supposed ally. ISI, its military intelligence arm, would appear willing to commit atrocities, including the murder of journalists, with no compunction.  Obama’s lack of emotional connection with the Afghan campaign is plain to see.


The chapter ‘Losing the moral high ground in Margaritaville’ shows how the CIA lost its moral compass (if it ever possessed one) and the strategic disaster that was Guantanamo. Rumsfeld and Cheney being chief accomplices. The arrival of General Petraeus as theatre commander signalled more moral deafness, particularly as he soon ceased listening to his adviser, David Kilcullen, who had developed a more nuanced understanding of Afghanistan’s tribal realities.


The book ends with her return to Kabul last year; it should be required reading for anyone who believes US and British spin that we made real progress and have left Afghanistan in a state to govern itself. The book is suffused with the thought that timescales in that country run to centuries, thus it is difficult to measure progress on a timescale that would neatly fit the US presidential election cycle.


Since she has a husband and child in Washington, Lamb’s heart is naturally there. But reading this book leaves the reader with the overwhelming impression her soul is in Kabul. The narrative is largely dispassionate, but the reader is left in no doubt of her admiration of many Afghans and their ways. It is required reading for anyone seeking a rounded understanding of the Afghan debacle, and in passing it also sheds light on Iraq. With quiet authority, numerous sources, and a devastating statistic when required, Lamb draws the reader to her own depressing conclusion.


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