Saturday, 23 July 2011

Review: Cables from Kabul by Sherard Cowper-Coles

The disarming first 24 of 26 chapters offer us, quite unselfconsciously, "Ruritania comes to Kabul". The last two chapters, quite another genre, provide a lucid, decisive critique of Western policy in Afghanistan, as it has been since 2001 and as it is now.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2010, the sort of job you can only get if you have studied Classics [Greats] at Oxford ("my best subject had been Roman military history" p.4 ). When you get to your Embassy, you imagine yourself "the headmaster of a run-down but generally happy and successful prep school..." (p.16) and you organise charity balls ( pp.95 -96 ) and sponsored beard-growing (pp 133-34). Your staff like competitions and the winning entry to name the Embassy bar is "The Inn Fidel". You do the rounds (endlessly) of the Afghan government and the other embassies, exchanging modest gifts, and you find time for visitors such as "Hilary, Lady Weir, out to see what the Brooke Trust (which she chaired) should be doing to help the working animals of Afghanistan" (p. 170).

Back home, the Foreign Office's Estates department tells you there is a budget of over £100 million to build you a new Embassy "in the poorest country in Asia" (p. 101)

You just happen to have a Close Protection Team of eight men with eight sub machine guns (facing page 154) and just happen to spend the time left over from the social whirl accompanying VIPs to the front line: in 2007, 27% of UK helicopter movements in southern Afghanistan were for the transport of VIPs (p. 178).

VIPs went to Helmand to observe the troops clearing out the Taliban as the first stage in the "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy. The second two stages are hopefully coming soon but the first stage is problematic, the Taliban now being mostly those locals who don't want the Infidel in their country. (Hence, chapters 25 & 26 of the book)

Cowper-Coles is clearly an able, very hard-working and brave man. He does his dangerous job knowing that he may suffer from the same congenital heart weakness which has recently claimed the life of his brother.

He is a splendid diplomat: his book has a good word to say about almost every character it mentions and where he can find no good word, he is usually silent. A damning comment about Prime Minister Gordon Brown's short-term opportunism over Afghanistan (just like over everything else) is as bad as it gets (pp. 119 - 120).

I don't think it comes naturally to him to write the final two chapters of the book.

The problems begin at the beginning. After 9 / 11 (coming up for ten years ago), George W Bush was not going to give the Taliban regime very long to meet his demand to hand over Osama Bin-Laden and his men. Cowper-Coles suggests that given a bit more time, they may have done so, if only on the grounds that Bin Laden and Co were foreigners who had abused Afghan hospitality.

So Bush went in and where Bush went, Tony Blair inevitably followed. Overthrowing the cruel and stupid Taliban regime was hardly difficult or controversial - it is worth recalling that at the time only three countries in the world still gave the regime diplomatic recognition (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates).


But as later in Iraq, the West now had the problem of finding a replacement government. Unfortunately, the most plausible leader, Ahmed Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, was assassinated by the Taliban just before 9/11. Karzai was a second-best, though with the advantage of coming from the majority Pashtun community and himself an observant Muslim, No Smoking, No Drinking, his wife kept in Purdah.

The new government was very reluctant to actually do anything. Cowper-Coles repeats several times that the problem with Karzai was that he spent too much time meeting and greeting and not enough time governing.

But you should set beside that the throw-away statistic that President Karzai has a Presidential Protective Service not of eight but eight hundred (p. 149 ). He can't really go anywhere or do very much without them.

That will remain the case until there is some kind of national reconciliation - what Labour's Douglas Alexander was suggesting when he formulated "Engage, Stabilise and Develop" as an alternative to "Clear, Hold and Build" (p. 173 -74). And "Engage" means "Talk to the Taliban" - something which the Bush regime would not really contemplate.

"Talking to the Taliban" is as shocking as the advice the Soviet Union gave to Dr Najibullah who they installed as Afghan leader when they quit in 1989, "forget Communism, abandon socialism, embrace Islam and work with the tribes" (p. 56)

In addition, there is the whole question of Afghanistan's relations with its neighbours. It has borders with (clockwise) Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, India and Pakistan. All have different interests but not necessarily nefarious, since they do not generally want refugees, violence or drugs: "the export of Afghan narcotics has done especial damage to Iran. Between 1979 and 2003, some 3,700 Iranian border guards and other officials are said to have lost their lives combating the traffickers" (pp 74-75).

That's about ten times the number of UK military casualties in our ten year engagement. (On this subject, Cowper-Coles allows the social reality to intrude: "A high proportion of the dead soldiers came from the poorer parts of the United Kingdom, and from broken homes ..." (p. 172))

But the neighbours have not been successfully engaged - the Bush regime wasn't in to that sort of thing and the legacy remains to be overcome.

These points and many others are developed, carefully and clearly, in the final two chapters of the book. Start there and then, if you can stomach it, read about Ruritania. I warn you that you will discover that at one point the British taxpayer flew Karzai to Britain in a chartered jet, basically so that he could go Scottish hill-walking with Prince Charles. They both like walking and they got on famously.

Sherard Cowper-Coles was previously our Man in Saudi Arabia and in Israel. Born in 1955, he has now prematurely left the Foreign Service. He is not a liberal or a radical; he has gone to work for BAE which sells military hardware to unpleasant regimes.

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