Truth or Politics

Robert Fox:
After a tour of the Afghan battlefields, Robert Fox says the western plan to get out fast is nonsense
JUNE 1, 2011

Following a record poppy harvest in Afghanistan, the promised Taliban summer offensive is well under way. Yet weeks from now President Barack Obama will carry out his promised audit, which is sure to start the US troops coming home - 5,000 now, and 5,000 more by December.

President Karzai, too, is taking counsel, from a special tribal gathering or loya jirga, which he hopes will permit him to amend the constitution to let him run for a third term in 2013.

Bringing up the rear, David Cameron has already said 450 British troops are coming home, not to be replaced, and he also wants many, many more to be out of combat by the end of next year.

Over the past month, traveling to the south, north-west and north-east of Afghanistan, I found the pattern of fighting varies hugely from region to region. Indeed, the diversity of terrain and tactics gives the impression of several wars taking place in several different countries.

In the south, the Taliban, depleted by an onslaught of Special Forces raids in the winter, are opting for a mix of ambushes and IEDs, concealed booby-trap devices. In the west they have gone for soft targets, hitting reconstruction headquarters and massacring road-building gangs.

Most thought-provoking was a trip into the mountains of Kunar within a few miles of the Pakistan border. It is a savagely beautiful world, where the Taliban come across the border along supply ‘rat runs’ by night, and by day engage the Americans of the 27th Regiment of Infantry - the 'Wolfhounds' - valley by valley, rocky peak by rocky peak.

"This kind of fighting could go on for another 30 years if need be," a US officer confides. It is generally acknowledged in his command that the Taliban here, predominantly of the Haqqani network, are directly sponsored and supplied by the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency, with little attempt at disguise.

Given all this, the deadlines for stepping back – 2012 for Cameron, 2014 for Nato as a whole and Obama - and for handing over full control to Karzai in Kabul seem to bear little relation to what is actually happening on the ground. The 2014 handover date is a figment of domestic political preference and prejudice for the Nato capitals, rather than pertaining to the destiny most Afghans would wish.

Suddenly we in the UK are being offered a quick fix, the talismanic answer to how to solve Afghanistan in three easy moves. It comes in the memoirs of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who served more than three years as Britain’s ambassador and then senior negotiator in Kabul.

Cables from Kabul has already become a political event, even before its publication next week. The author, clearly embittered at not being given the top ambassadorial posts he craved in Paris or Washington, may be smarting at being out of office. But surely this is not likely to last – for the book is unremittingly on message: he tells David Cameron exactly what he wants to hear.

First and foremost he blames the military. The British Army's compulsive optimism, he argues, tipped UK forces five years ago into fighting in Helmand without much forethought.

With little evidence, Cowper-Coles argues that the British brought violence to Helmand, and supports Karzai's argument that the province was a haven of tranquility until we arrived in 2006. In fact it was ungoverned space, ruled by the nexus of narco-traffickers, warlords and Taliban in the top market garden for the world heroin trade.

His most serious criticism is reserved for Gen David Petraeus, the ISAF commander, whose campaign to clear the most violent and virulent Taliban groups, he says, brought unnecessary agony and violence to Afghans, and a peace postponed. The answer, naturally, is that the civil servants and diplomats should take the lead, and promote a grand pact after "talks with the Taliban" - whatever that means, given the diverse, incoherent and fractious nature of the groups who use the label.

Yet there appears little chance of a grand settlement with the Taliban, as even the UN in Kabul seem to agree. A hasty deal between the Pashtuns and the Taliban would threaten yet another major civil war, of Pashtuns versus the Tajiks of the Northern Alliance, Hazara and Uzbeks. This is likely to spread well beyond Afghanistan, to Pakistan, the Asian republics and India. There is now an increasing risk of this anyway, particularly if Obama insists on withdrawal in 2014.

This is not considered in the Cowper-Coles version of what should happen. Stripping out the layers of shameless self-promotion and absurd suburban snobbery that litter almost every page of his book, he seriously suggests that men like him - Oxford-educated diplomats and policy wonks at the Ministry of Defence - can provide the answers if only they aren’t shouted down by the military.

There is no evidence whatsoever for this. After all, it is these civil servants that seem to have led us into the present quagmire in Libya, where good military advice appears to have been ignored. But the gospel according to Cowper-Coles will be music to the ear in No 10. Gissajob, mate

Read more: On the Afghanistan frontline: it's time to get real - Robert Fox | Fox | Columnists | The First Post


Book Reviewer
the only way to end it is to establish a pashtun homeland which would be 80% of pakistan and 40% of afghanistan, secure the borders then nuke it

John Civie

the only way to end it is to nuke it

Fixed that for you
It'd be faster just to leave now and just leave the warlords we like with just enough firepower to keep the eventual civil war going for long enough for them to be otherwise occupied trying to kill each other not the west, a good old fashioned proxy war like before the reds threw in the towel


the only way to end it is to establish a pashtun homeland which would be 80% of pakistan and 40% of afghanistan, secure the borders then nuke it

I'm up for a serious programme of regional reduction by thermonuclear weapons if you are. I'm sure the russians and Iranians wouldn't be too happy though... (heed the former screw the latter).


Book Reviewer
I have just read the book. Did anyone review for Arrse? If so, I cannot find a link.

I had a long conversation with the Guardian/Evening Standard journalist Robert Fox whose review is quoted above, en route to/from Bastion a while back. Interesting guy. His views on Petraeus cannot be taken as objective - not least because Robert I am sure wishes to keep his privileged access to the late head of CIA whose own book will be out shortly I'd surmise.

Anyone on here actually read 'Cables from Kabul' ? Be interested to hear a different perspective. Old Snowy may be the right man to ask - or anyone else on Arrse who has worked in AFG in a non-mil capacity.

Having read many accounts from the ground war ranging from Patrick Bishop's A Million Bullets via the Russian experience covered in 'AFGANTSY' to Toby Harnden's Dead Men Risen, I found Cowper-Coles' book gave a different perspective. Anyone who has worked in Whitehall will find the external view of MoD of interest.

To give him his due, Cowper-Coles does not present as a pink and fluffy anti military FCO wet, just a thoughtful man who is deeply frustrated at the inability of successive UK governments to resolve the impasse and to give the diplomatic mission the same level of support as the military.

A telling quote comes from his discussions with a Labour Cabinet Minister who tells him
' I don't know a Tornado from a torpedo. I can't question the Chief of the Defence Staff on this.'

The dismissive precis given by Robert Fox ( who as older hands will remember, has a long and close involvement with Parachute Regt following his Falklands embed thirty years ago) doesn't do it justice.

Don Cabra

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