The west’s Afghanistan campaign

2011-09-14 00:00

THE author was Her ­Majesty’s Ambassador in Kabul and then Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2010.

A career diplomat with a clear ­affinity for the military, he has written this personal account from memory and a rough diary, without ­access to official papers.

At one level it is the ­inevitable account of embassy life in an exotic location, but this one is punctuated by frequent bomb blasts.

There are also hazardous visits to British troops in Helmand, which Cowper-Coles obviously relished. He is frank about his ­deteriorating relationship with the moody President Hamid Karzai; and as for interactions with missions from other nations, these are sometimes surprising.

He quotes Harold Macmillan to the effect that the first rule of politics is not to invade Afghanistan. Having made this mistake three times, the British should know.

Cowper-Coles is uncomfortable with American tactics that seem destined to repeat the error of Vietnam: over-confidence in military and material resources without a plausible political strategy. He agrees with Georges Clemenceau that war is too serious a matter to be left to the military. And he is adamant that without a peace settlement, it is fruitless to indulge in wishful thinking about development projects.

On the evidence of this book the Afghans would no doubt agree. The extent to which they are engaged in the latest plan from Washington is unclear and their options seem bleak: the Taliban, warlords involved in the drug trade or the corrupt regime in Kabul.

Cowper-Coles has written an engaging account, but sooner or later the occupiers will be gone. His readers are left with the feeling it will probably all have been for naught.

Certainly this will be the case, the author argues, if there is no accommodation with the Taliban. And that will require the cooperation of regional powers such as Pakistan, about which Cowper-Coles is disappointingly reticent.

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