Thursday, June 30, 2011

Afghanistan: an insider's appalling story

I've been writing about Afghanistan for some time, pointing out that there's no military solution to its problems. We'll have to either negotiate a peaceful exit, or sprint for the border with our tails between our legs, and the Taliban hot on our heels. (Britain can remind us what that's like, from a historical perspective.) Quite frankly, given the present mismanagement of our forces there and the lack of political will (not to mention skill) in Washington, my money's on the second option.

A new book, 'Cables From Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign', by the former British ambassador to that country, paints a grim picture of political fecklessness, diplomatic dithering and blindness to reality from all the major players in the drama there. The Daily Mail reports:

Two years ago, during his tenure as foreign secretary, David Miliband was making small talk with two Afghan ministers while waiting for dinner to be served in the British ambassador’s residence in Kabul.

How long, he asked innocently, did they expect their government forces to remain in power in Helmand after our military withdrew?

‘24 hours,’ came the reply.

With those short words - accompanied by an insouciant grin - the absurdity of our Afghan misadventure was summed up. Billions of pounds spent, thousands of lives lost and all we are doing is making the same mistakes as all those others who thought they could tame this fractious nation.

This revealing anecdote is one of many delicious vignettes, laden with spice and leavened with wit, served up in Cables From Kabul, an account by Sherard Cowper-Coles of his four years serving as ambassador to Afghanistan and the foreign secretary’s special representative.

The author’s name may be redolent of a character who has stepped out of an Evelyn Waugh novel, but Cowper-Coles is a sharp observer of diplomatic and political shenanigans.

After failing to win the promotion promised following this tough posting, he quit the Foreign Office. In truth, he has served his nation better by delivering such an incisive account of what went wrong in Afghanistan.

. . .

What follows is a saga of American arrogance, Afghan artifice and British impotence. Much of his time is spent trying to restrain a bull-headed ally intent on an impossible military victory after becoming embroiled in complex civil, religious and tribal conflicts running for decades.

Meanwhile, everyone knows crumbling Pakistan is the bigger threat to British security. The author, pushing for a political solution, watches aghast as objectives change, command structures fail, local allies prove a problem and there is ‘mission creep’ on a heroic scale.

‘The parallels with the tragedy of Soviet Russia’s failed attempt to stabilise Afghanistan are too many and too close for comfort,’ he concludes.

The end result is America spending $125 billion a year to pacify a country that raises for itself less than one-hundredth of that amount. A British officer reveals that when newly-trained Afghan army recruits were told they were going to Helmand, nearly two-thirds disappeared since they were expected to ride around a hostile zone in unprotected pick-up trucks.

As a result, in future they had to be locked in buses and not told where they were going.

. . .

As we start to turn from a conflict that has cost so much money, wasted so many lives and caused so much damage, this timely book raises fundamental questions that remain valid even after the death of Osama Bin Laden, the man who provoked us a decade ago to repeat the obvious mistakes of history.

There's more at the link. That's one book I'm going to buy for sure! It's available in Britain at present, but it's bound to be on the market here within a matter of weeks.

I wasn't joking, earlier, about having to run for the border with our tails between our legs. If you thought the occupation of Afghanistan was a nightmare, "you ain't seen nothin' yet", as the song says. To pull out of their far-flung deployments hundreds of thousands of troops, tens of thousands of vehicles and all their related infrastructure, then concentrate them in central locations and get them safely out of the country, is going to be a nightmare of Brobdingnagian proportions. I fully expect to see an enormous quantity of equipment either abandoned in place (because it's too difficult to remove it), or left behind in the rush (because there aren't enough people to secure, load and escort all the gear to be recovered). I think we're going to lose billions of dollars worth of hardware, and at least dozens (perhaps hundreds) of lives too. Again, ask the British about that.

As German poet Theodor Fontane wrote of the First Afghan War:

With thirteen thousand their trail they began.
Only one man returned from Afghanistan.

He wasn't exaggerating. Only one man made it out of Afghanistan alive in 1842 by his own efforts, although some prisoners (a very few) were later rescued. I expect our forces will enjoy better fortune than those of Major-General William Elphinstone: but even so, if you pray (as I do), you might want to add that to the list.



trailbee said...

There never has been an answer to Afghan. This "problem" is over two hundred-plus years old. Look it up in history books and see how the Brits and French and Russians fared. We came in because of el Qaeda, but to even imagine that democracy is the answer for that country is absolutely insane. That country is a pathway to and from other places. Look at the terrain! Bin Laden is dead. Our military is on a suicide mission. Why? Someone's convenience?

Larry said...

A friend of mine returned from a tour of duty there recently. His idea? Evacuate everybody in the government forces and their families out to cruise ships in the Indian Ocean, then we pull out and then capet bomb the entire country until every f****** thing is dead. Once that's accomplished, we sink the cruise ships and come home.