This book, as its title and sub-title imply, appears to be about Afghanistan. Thus, those tired of the avalanche of recent books about that troubled land might hesitate to pick this one up at a bookshop. They would be mistaken. “Cables from Kabul” is only incidentally about Afghanistan. It is a must read on current Western diplomacy and the way the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) operates in a partially hostile territory.
One could rapidly skip the bits about Afghanistan in this book which is really a study of the West. The bits include the usual myths about Afghans having defeated every invader from Alexander of Macedonia to the Soviet Red Army, passing by the British Raj. We are also told that, composed of numerous ethnic groups, Afghanistan could hardly be regarded as a nation in the modern sense.
In any case, Cowper-Coles’ time in Afghanistan was mostly spent either in Kabul or in part of the Helmand Valley where British troops were based until recently. The ambassador had few chances of meeting Afghans aside from top officials and occasional informers. He spent most of his time with other Westerners, including journalists, businessmen and, visiting politicians. To fight the boredom of a life confined to the walls of a poorly equipped embassy building, Cowper-Coles even organised annual competitions for growing the longest beard in the British community.
Once we have pushed aside the annoying clichés about Afghanistan, we would find “Cables from Kabul” an intelligent study of the failure of the richest nations to develop a coherent foreign policy that is not hostage to political correctness and short-termism.
Cowper-Coles shows that NATO nations, led by the United States, went to Afghanistan without knowing what they wanted. Initially, the campaign was presented as a response to the 9/11 attacks on the US, the aim being to dismantle Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. Once that was done, roughly around 2003, a new aim emerged: turning Afghanistan into a democracy. By 2008, a discount was offered: the alliance would be satisfied with any “working political system” in Kabul. Two years later, there was another discount. This time, NATO hoped to train enough Afghans to ensure a minimum of security, allowing the alliance forces to leave.
what Muslim historians have labeled By the time Cowper-Coles’ book hit the bookshops, it was no longer possible to fathom what the policy was or, indeed, whether there was one.
In “Cables from Kabul”, NATO appears as a collection of armies modeled on those of Frankish dukes from feudal Europe who led expeditions to “the Orient” during the Crusades without ever developing a common strategy.
It is clear that NATO allies agreed to join the Afghan expedition largely, and in some case solely, to please the Americans.
Otherwise, it would be hard to determine what “national interest” Lithuania, or even France, have in “The Land of Insolence” as Muslim historians called Afghanistan.
NATO powers have divided Afghanistan into a patchwork that reminds one of the map of feudal Europe.
Worse still, unlike those of the Frankish dukes, NATO contingents believe in nothing in particular. Mined by political correctness, multiculturalism and “the guilt of colonialism”, the modern version of the “Original Sin”, they want to be half in and half out in everything.
That may be admirable in a stable, prosperous and pluralist society at a time of peace. But it is a recipe for disaster in war. Like love, war requires total commitment to a clearly identified objective.
Every NATO contingent is present with its caveat, a document that details what the contingent would and would not do. On paper, the overall of NATO commander in Afghanistan has almost a quarter of a million men. In practice, he could rely only on a few thousand that are ready and willing to combat.
The Dutch refuse to fight after sunset. Germans would not pursue a fleeing enemy into villages. The French would fight only in self defence. Until recently, the Americans wanted to fight only Al Qaeda.
The allies treat the so-called war as a garden party where one could drop in and out at a time of one’s choosing. Hence, the current race among the allies to withdraw from Afghanistan faster than others. No one wants to be left behind to turn off the lights.
Western publics are seldom told that most of the 2200 NATO troops killed in Afghanistan did not die in combat. In fact, there is surprisingly little fighting even in the four provinces where the Taliban and their allies, including drug barons, are active. The majority of NATO soldiers who died were victims either of roadside bombs, the so-called Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), and/or suicide attacks.
Cowper-Coles shows that what matters to most Western leaders is not how things are in Afghanistan but how they look back home. Without making grandiose statements, the ambassador portrays a political culture in which perception is often as important as reality.
The ambassador’s account is laced with thinly disguised contempt for Afghan officials including President Hamid Karzai. Cowper-Coles says that at one point he had the impression that Karzai, during a visit to London, was on the point of demanding political asylum from Britain rather than returning to Kabul.
Cowper-Coles is far from flattering on Britain’s American allies. The late Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s “special envoy” on Afghanistan and Pakistan, emerges as a self-satisfied but jovial fellow who would cancel an important meeting because he wanted to go to an expensive Paris restaurant.
The book is also a primer on how things are done at Whitehall, the seat of the British government. The reader gets glimpses of the intrigues at Downing Street and the Foreign Office and constant turf wars between the military and the diplomatic establishment.
Always attentive to public mood, Cowper-Coles echoes the currently fashionable view that Afghanistan is a hopeless case and that the British should get out as fast as possible.
Cowper-Coles offers nothing resembling an argument why the British should get out. But neither did he discover why the Brits went there in the first place.