European Affairs

Book Review: Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World. By Christina Lamb     Print

Stacks of books and memoirs on the post-9/11 Afghan war have appeared in both the United States and United Kingdom. Unfortunately few of them make the trip across the ocean, denying readers different perspectives on a conflict that brought heavy casualties to several allied nations, not to mention tens of  thousands of Afghans. 

A step to closing this gap comes in the U.S.  publication of the history/memoir of British correspondent and author Christina Lamb,. She spent 28 years covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Financial Times, Sunday Times and Telegraph and  brings to this difficult story not only great experience and knowledge but a sensibility for the countries and people involved.

With as much sadness as bitterness,  Lamb asserts that the Afghan war, now in its 15th year, will be remembered in the same breath as Vietnam and Gallipoli.

She describes her tearful, farewell flight from Kabul: “Sad because I really believed that things didn’t have to be like this. Sad for all the hopes that were, and for the lessons we did not learn from our ancestors and others who tried to tame these lands before. Sad for all those lives lost or damaged...”

Among the several valuable perspectives that Lamb brings to this chronicle, one stands out, in part due to her British roots. A reader comes away thinking, alright, Americans  can be arrogant, naive and historically unaware in exercising their incredible power. But how to explain how Britain seemed to have absorbed so little in its fourth Afghan war from its three previous failures there. Perhaps there are no national distinctions in the inability of people to learn from past mistakes rather than constantly repeating them.

Of course British and American mistakes were intertwined in the post-9/11 wars, beginning in Afghanistan and then going into Iraq thinking they had buttoned up the first fight. Instead, as we now grimly know, Iraq is mired in incredible chaos while helping give birth to a new terrorist movement even more dangerous than Al Qaeda and Afghanistan seems to have come nearly full circle from August 2001, increasingly controlled by the Taliban.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to back the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been fully documented elsewhere. Lamb offers new insights into the British role in Afghanistan, a conflict that cost it 453  dead or  more than double the number lost in Iraq. The author details how Blair volunteered to take over the allied mission in the most dangerous and poppy producing province of Helmand. No wonder she draws comparisons with Vietnam when she describes how the government originally labeled the effort  a “reconstruction” program,  then continually under-estimated the number of troops needed and  often worried more about press coverage of bad news. than the situation on the ground.  And there was the further complication of a totally muddled chain of command. For Americans there are the descriptions, amusing and sad at once, of a network of Etonian commanders, diplomats (140 in Helmand, larger than most UK embassies) and journalists trying and failing to cope with a situation going out of their plummily accented control.

Next door, Lamb offers an explanation of how Britain, as much or more than the United States, was willing to go along with, if not abet, Pakistan’s treacherous and duplicitous actions in Afghanistan. In her estimation, the all-powerful military intelligence services ISI have had one mission since they controlled the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet invasion of 1979 –to create an Islamist state as a secure buffer against arch-enemy India.  Lacking the rarely used American leverage of billions in military aid and because of its substantial Pakistani population, British governments have been unwilling to challenge or confront the government in Islamabad, which now possesses more nuclear weapons than either Britain or France.

From decades of developing professional and personal relationships, Lamb has numerous human stories to tell, many of them tragic –whether of courageous British soldiers, the increasingly isolated  Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Pakistan’s martyred Benazir Bhutto and the Afghan women, far removed from international celebrity and so often sacrificed in what seems like a losing struggle not only for modernity but basic humanity.

Two exchanges sum up the frustrating dilemma that Afghanistan became, for Americans and British alike, as both are completing major withdrawals of forces which neither will call a retreat.

In one, Lamb runs back to back quotes from Conservative MP and former SAS soldier David Davis (now the minister for Brexit) and General Nick Carter.

Davis: “...if you look at all the possible aims –removing an ungoverned space in which extremists can prosper, destroying the Taliban, putting in place a working democracy, destroying the drug trade, improving the lives of women, stabilizing Pakistan –in all those things we failed, and in some cases went backward.”

Carter: “What I say to people who have lost loved ones there or been wounded is that I think Afghanistan as a whole is a better than it was in 2002, whether you measure by infrastructure, what the economy has done, health care, education...That’s not to say an awful lot of things still wrong with it...”

An even sharper, more poignant exchange, part said and part unsaid, came between the American commander, General Dan McNeill and the British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Cowles in 2008.

General Davis: “I could do this if I had 500,000 troops.” Cowper-Cowles said he was tempted to add, “And fifty years.”

Michael Mosettig is former Foreign Editor of PBS The News Hour and a frequent contributor to European Affairs.

Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World. By Christina Lamb. 
William Collins. 640 pages.