by Sherard Cowper-Coles, Harper Press, 312pp
Reviewed by Matthew Partridge
While several books on the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan have been released recently to wide acclaim, there are still relatively few serious books on NATO operations that have received comparable attention, from press, academics and the officers’ mess. However, with all combat troops set to leave in less than three and a half years, this neglect is likely to change. In Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan and later Special Representative to the British Foreign Secretary on Afghanistan and Pakistan, details his views on the NATO’s military and political strategy.
Although initially lambasted in the British press for calling policy in the region “a thirty-year marathon”, Cowper-Coles quickly became, and remains in Cables from Kabul, a proponent of the view that a solution can come about “only once America is prepared to talk direct[ly] to its enemies”, a euphemism for surrendering significant power to the Taliban. At the same time he is deeply critical of American policy, contending both that the counterinsurgency programme was futile and the attempts to reorient the Afghan economy away from the production of narcotics were deeply counterproductive.
In contrast, Cowper-Coles is unstinting in his praise of Afghanistan’s previous rulers. The Soviet puppet Najibullah is praised as “a strong Afghan leader”, while the Taliban are praised for standing “for law and order…they could be hardly worse than the appalling anarchy which had preceded them”. Indeed, one nameless official, who served both the Soviets and the Taliban, is twice described (without apparent irony) in the space of two pages as an “Afghan patriot”, and the assertion that it was only American impetuosity that stopped the Taliban from handing over Bin Laden goes unchallenged.
In case the reader is left in any doubt about the type of political system he supports, Cowper-Coles argues that, if they must stay, Britain and American should abandon institution building, and instead devolve all power to tribal leaders, whose loyalty would be purchased. Under this arrangement NATO forces would be restricted to lobbing the occasional missile at insurgents and recalcitrant tribes, or, in his words, “Imperial Air Policing”. In a particularly revealing passage, he complains about being misquoted as endorsing the idea of a dictator, not because he disagrees with the principle, but because he thinks Afghanistan is unsustainable as a unitary state.
In the epilogue, Cowper-Coles even suggests that, instead of intervening after 9/11, America should have followed the British, Russian and Roman empires which responded to attacks by launching “a punitive expedition to deter and punish those responsible for the offence, and withdrew as quickly as possible”. At the very most the United States, should have “established a client kingdom in the offending territory”.
As well as attacking the idea of nation-building, Cowper-Coles is extremely critical of the senior British and American military leadership. He believes that they are deceptive towards their civilian leaders, deliberately underestimating the amount of men and materiel needed to accomplish an objective, then publicly lobbying until the subsequent overstretch is rectified by increased resources. In the author’s view this cycle of intervention, followed by complaints and increased spending is accentuated by a civilian unwillingness to confront, or even question, the advice given by military leaders. He also suggests that diplomats and foreign policy analysts have been pressured into agreeing with the military.
Even ignoring the implications of letting Afghanistan revert to tribal anarchy or Taliban domination, Cowper-Cole’s analysis overlooks several inconvenient facts. Ironically, the Clinton administration attempted to follow his strategy, launching hit-and-run attacks on Bin Laden within Afghanistan in 1998 and 2000 and attempting to negotiate with Mullah Omar’s government. Instead of leading them to surrender Bin Laden, appeasement policies merely emboldened the Taliban, while the failed assassination attempts increased Bin Laden’s stature. Similarly, the decision to liberate Kabul with airstrikes and support for the Northern Alliance, rather than with American ground troops, was one of the root causes of the subsequent instability.
The claim that American intervention in Afghanistan administration policies broke with the Cold-War idea of “containment” overlooks the fact that Kennan’s idea was a pragmatic response to the fact that impossibility of directly challenging Soviet control of Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, when the opportunity presented itself, especially in Africa and Latin America, the Truman, Kennedy and even Eisenhower administrations were not afraid to aggressively intervene in a series of small (and not-so-small) wars to “roll-back” Soviet and communist influence. At the same time the Truman administration engaged in unapologetic nation-building in Japan and West Germany.
While the leaking of the internal debates over Afghan strategy between the Pentagon and the White House, and the increasing outspokenness of the British High Command about the quality of vehicles and the sustainability of operations, clearly undermines civilian control of the military, and are both inexcusable. However, the author fails to consider the other side of the argument, namely that talk about negotiating with the Taliban and setting a withdrawal timetable impacts negatively on the willingness of the Afghan people to fight and emboldens insurgents. Given that Junior Officers are currently trained to “keep your extraction plan secret” at the village level (to quote David Killcullen’s advice) it is strange to see the Commander-in-Chief pledging that “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home”.
Ironically, Cables from Kabul itself appears to have been revised to remove some especially contentious material, although it is not clear whether this was requested by the Foreign Office or was simply the authors’ personal decision. While there is a lot of detail about the political debates in 2007 and 2008, there is strangely little about either the November 2009 “surge” or the controversy that resulted in Cowper-Coles’s departure. While the former may have been a largely internal debate, the latter is a serious omission, and reduces the books’ scholarly value. It might have better if publication had been delayed for a year or two, so more material could have been included.
Of course, Cowper-Coles’ advice is not clearly useless. His account of the disastrous effects of attempts to reduce the drugs trade by purchasing opium from Afghan farmers should be required reading for those naïve enough to still believe in the viability of such schemes. The fact that Zahir Shah, the former King of Afghanistan, was respected enough for Karzai to consult him regularly suggests that he could have played an important symbolic role as a constitutional (non-governing) monarch, like Hirohito in post-war Japan. It would clearly have been easier for all parties to hold Karzai to account for his corruption and misbehaviour had he been Prime Minister of a parliamentary democracy rather than a directly elected President.
Overall, this is a useful book. However, this is because it provides a foretaste of the arguments that will be made by those opposed to both counterinsurgency and intervention in the coming years, rather than because of the strength of its critique or the quality of the revelations about British policymaking in the region.