There is no single villain. The military did the disastrous deed, but it was civilians who created and defined the mission
For the want of three bombs we lost the war. In fact, Robert Gates’s retirement speech as US defence secretary last week did not admit to defeat in Afghanistan. Not quite. He stuck to the one more heave, 10,000 bigger bangs, 100,000 more troops plan by which the American and British military are still marching to hell-and-gone. But his lament for Nato’s future, and criticism of those soggy Europeans who want Yankee protection without fighting in Yankee wars, was really a confession of failure. Gates is getting his recriminations in early, blaming others before he’s blamed himself.
He ought to be. So – up to a point and lower down the chain – should those cocky senior British officers with posh accents who talked so fluently of “cracking on in Helmand” and creating Garmshire out of Garmsir, and hoping a good war in Afghanistan might erase the stain of a bad one in Iraq. Trained to fight, to want every resource for their troops, and never to say it can’t be done, such commanders made war seductive for civilians. Twice in Helmand I did the rounds of PowerPoint briefings in bunkers and helicopter flights dodging dry river gullies: more fun than war should ever be. Faced with such thrills, what politician dare question whether heroes – who really are heroes – are right?
So: all the military’s fault, then? No, not simply, and not entirely. Simplicities about the past will misinform the future. Confronted with what is in effect defeat in the camouflage of success, we may come to persuade ourselves that Afghanistan was only the military’s war.
It’s easy to see how this impression could grow. There is a flavour of it in Sherard Cowper-Coles’s outstanding new account of his time as British ambassador in Afghanistan, Cables From Kabul. The book attacks what he calls “the hopeful vocabulary of stabilisation and the eager-earnest syntax of counter-insurgency”. Conflict acquired its own momentum. Some generals acted like politicians while others – Richard Dannatt – tried to become politicians. Blinking in body armour, fresh off an RAF flight from Muscat, civilian visitors were led blind on a tour of battle in which success was always just around the corner. “The formula for such visits was unchanging. I am not sure how much senior visitors, who often seemed close to collapsing from exhaustion, really learned.” Having shared a room one night at Kandahar airbase with a sleepless Nick Harvey, now the armed forces minister, I see Cowper-Coles’s point.
Among many sad anecdotes, he notes that 27% of British helicopter flights in Helmand carried (mainly military) VIPs, while politicians were being denounced for under-equipping the forces. The RAF spent £70m widening taxiways in Kandahar so it could fly Tornado jets for which there was no call beyond the spurious claim they might cheer up the British squaddies they overflew. Or the tale of the commander who joked that injuries would work wonders for Britain’s Paralympic team in 2012. Cowper-Coles restates the claim that troops were sent to Afghanistan in a bid to “use them, or lose them” to Treasury cuts.
Few visitors asked, as Cowper-Coles recalls one Estonian doing, the only appropriate question: “What the fuck are we doing here?” Fair enough. But that was something the military could never be expected to answer. Whatever went wrong – and has yet to go wrong – in Helmand, failure was only a subset of political and diplomatic mistakes. It was civilians who created and defined the mission. Cowper-Coles’s wounding indictment of the can-do military response explains but does not entirely exonerate the behaviour of those who could and should have taken a second opinion.
There is no single villain. Gordon Brown and David Cameron (suggests Cowper-Coles) meant well; so, even more, did David Miliband. A fortune in money, effort, intelligence and goodwill was squandered in an absurdist circus. He paints Kabul as a city in which foreigners engaged almost exclusively with one another, launching ever-more elaborate holistic strategies to save a nation whose citizens they feared to meet. Spies, diplomats and “tree-hugging” aid workers whirled around with splendid intentions, promising that this time their plans really were joined up and would work. And it never happened.
Cowper-Coles adds that the international diplomatic effort, which he joined, was worse. Everyone sought favour at the court of King Karzai. One small story is indicative. When the Afghan president decided to make an exhibition of some prisoners on death row, the execution ground was found to be locked and the luckless men driven round the city until a patch of ground on which they could be gunned down was found. “I was privately appalled at what had happened, but rather ignobly chose to say nothing,” Cowper-Coles writes. “My American colleague … told the president, without the slightest of irony, that the executions had been a ‘beacon of hope for the future of Afghanistan’.”
Cowper-Coles’s is, subtly, a bitter critique. Had this book been written a few years ago, he would have been ostracised by a diplomatic establishment whose instinct is to belittle former colleagues who go rogue. How telling, then, that last week’s book launch in London was packed with confident, clever people in expensive suits: the pick of the diplomatic establishment.
They know the Afghan war is lost. The coming battle is to deal out – and dodge – the blame.