Un­work­able in Afghanistan

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

For­mer Bri­tish am­bas­sador Sher­ard Cow­perColes de­scribes the daily re­al­ity un­spool­ing be­hind his Kabul em­bassy’s tall sui­cide bar­ri­ers and barbed wire: “Some­times life in Afghanistan seemed to be lived with­out Afghans.”

Barred from do­ing much aside from “sub­sti­tut­ing ac­quain­tance for knowl­edge, ac­tiv­ity for un­der­stand­ing, re­port­ing for anal­y­sis, quan­tity of work for qual­ity,” Mr. Cow­per-Coles of­fers us a nar­ra­tive that sheds valu­able if se­lec­tive light on the trans­for­ma­tive 2007 to 2010 years. The text stands com­pellingly on its own, but for max­i­mum in­sight it must be read along­side the Wik­iLeaks ca­bles cov­er­ing the same pe­riod.

Just like the ca­bles, it of­fers tan­ta­liz­ing pri­vate glimpses into the power re­la­tion­ships be­tween the men (and they are all men) who dom­i­nate the head­lines: Richard Hol­brooke, while pass- ing through Lon­don, grumpily ac­cept­ing an MI6 brief­ing on Afghanistan that clashes with plans to at­tend a the­ater show with his old friend, fi­nancier Ge­orge Soros; Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush giv­ing his Afghan coun­ter­part Hamid Karzai “plenty of love, but it was al­most un­con­di­tional.” When Mr. Karzai’s re­peated vis­its to the U.S. Em­bassy be­came too rem­i­nis­cent of a pup­pet leader vis­it­ing his over­lord’s cas­tle for in­struc­tions, the Amer­i­cans con­sid­er­ately in­stalled a se­cure video con­fer­enc­ing suite in his palace.

“Ca­bles from Kabul” of­fers a re­mark­ably hon­est judg­ment of the Amer­i­can ap­proach to Afghanistan: un­work­able. The cam­paign that Amer­ica fought at the edge of its men­tal fron­tier shud­dered on the shoals of cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ing. Just as the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal class didn’t know the dif­fer­ence be­tween Sun­nis and Shi­ites in Iraq, so it never un­der­stood that the Tal­iban are much more than a rag­tag mili­tia but largely rep­re­sent Afghanistan’s Pash­tun mi­nor­ity.

At 40 per­cent of the over­all Afghan pop­u­la­tion, any ef­fort to es­tab­lish a “re­li­able client state by means of a dys­func­tional multi­na­tional man­date” with­out deal­ing with the Tal­iban (and there­fore the Pash­tuns) was bound to fail.

With ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the United States and the Tal­iban on­go­ing, this re­al­iza­tion has been made be­lat­edly. Mr. Cow­perColes in­dicts Wash­ing­ton for com­mit­ting a litany of faults that broke “all the rules of grand strat­egy: get­ting in with­out hav­ing any real idea of how to get out; al­most will­ful mis­di­ag­no­sis of the na­ture of the chal­lenges; no co­her­ent or con­sis­tent plan; mis­sion creep on a heroic scale; di­ver­sion of at­ten­tion and re­sources (to Iraq) at a crit­i­cal stage in the ad­ven­ture; poor choice of lo­cal al­lies, who rapidly be­came more of a prob­lem than a so­lu­tion; un­will­ing­ness to coopt the neigh­bors into the pro­ject, and thus ad­dress the mis­sion-crit­i­cal prob­lem of ex­ter­nal sanc­tu­ary and sup­port; mil­i­tary ad­vice long on in­sti­tu­tional self-in­ter­est, but woe­fully short on se­ri­ous ob­jec­tive anal­y­sis of the prob­lems of paci­fy­ing a bro­ken coun­try with largely nonex­is­tent in­sti­tu­tions of gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity.” And the list goes on.

“Ca­bles from Kabul” is pub­lished this year, the year when the level of West­ern in­volve­ment peaks. It is re­mark­ably hon­est in sketch­ing out — with­out blam­ing by name — the ac­cel­er­at­ing disas­ter of NATO’s Afghanistan pro­ject and the in­fu­ri­at­ing com­pla­cency with which West­ern con­trac­tors, cor­po­ra­tions and mil­i­taries alike en­tered the world’s poor­est coun­try with a man­date for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion but treated it as a con­ve­niently re­mote lo­ca­tion for self-pro­mo­tion and en­rich­ment.

The book stands at its best when its au­thor is as sear­ingly hon­est as when he ad­mits that a with­drawal of Bri­tish troops from Hel­mand “was not re­motely prac­ti­cal pol­i­tics for any Bri­tish prime min­is­ter who wanted to pre­serve his re­la­tion­ship with Wash­ing­ton,” or when he de­scribes the hard time mem­bers of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion give U.S. Am­bas­sador Karl Eiken­berry for op­pos­ing the surge. Mr. Eiken­berry had ex­plained in clas­si­fied ca­bles why he doubted the ef­fi­cacy of send­ing a few more thou­sand troops into an in­sur­gency that could not be re­solved in the ab­sence of a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment with the Tal­iban. He next saw his words printed in the New York Times. So dis­mayed was Mr. Eiken­berry by the in­sti­tu­tional re­sis­tance to his sug­ges­tions that, Mr. Cow­perColes notes at the end of an of­fi­cial visit to Bri­tain, he “looked and sounded as though he might al­most ask for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in Bri­tain, rather than re­turn to the mael­strom of life as am­bas­sador in Kabul.”

Ia­son Athanasiadis is a re­porter for The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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