How the west failed Afghanistan

All too often, Afghans aren’t even consulted about plans for their own country.

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Farewell Kabul: from Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World
Christina Lamb
William Collins, 640pp, £25

The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan
Jack Fairweather
Jonathan Cape, 512pp, £20

“We are with you for the long run . . . standing shoulder to shoulder.” Such was the resolute promise of world leaders after the 9/11 attacks that provoked an invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of a pariah Taliban regime. War-weary Afghans hailed what was widely welcomed as the best chance in a generation to bring peace and prosperity to their shattered land. I remember reflecting then that this would be a test case for our time: “What would be the result when men and women of goodwill, with great resources and troops, try to put a country back together again?” More than a decade on, we all have an answer. Many would say, simply and sadly, “We failed.” Fuller answers are to be found in two very good books by British newspaper journalists that sit with ­distinction in a growing library about where we – both Afghans and the international community – went wrong.

The Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb has spent many years living in a region where she built up personal contacts and a forensic understanding of how things work and why they don’t. Farewell Kabul is an impassioned, at moments anguished, love letter to Afghanistan. She has drawn the best from her many notebooks – ­except the one lost in a Taliban ambush in Helmand – to tell us a tale of defining moments and leading characters.

The war reporter Jack Fairweather’s The Good War, meanwhile, can feel one step away from the action but is no less compelling or valuable. His is a chronology of a war of our time; it holds one’s attention and he has done his research. Both of these books can make for painful reading. Chapter after chapter, there are moments of missed opportunity and misunderstanding.

Lamb sets out her stall at the start:

Over those 13 years I watched with growing incredulity as we fought a war with our hands tied, committed too little too late, became distracted by a new war of our own making [Iraq] based on wrong information, and turned a blind eye as our enemy was being helped by our own ally [Pakistan].

And Fairweather highlights the consequence of a promise that was “pure fantasy”. The world broke its pledge to Afghanistan: “It is the story of how the promise of a new military doctrine was ended by the Good War in Afghanistan and what it means for the future of western military action in the developing world.” The people of Syria and Iraq pleading for help may already be paying the price.

Afghanistan is undeniably a better place in many ways than it was in late 2001. More children are at school; primary health care has improved; more roads have been built; there’s an elected parliament, a constitution, and more. But the headlines are grim: horrific Taliban attacks, rising corruption, the protracted crisis over last year’s disputed presidential elections, which aroused fears of civil war. Why didn’t men and women of goodwill, with great resources and troops, achieve more and achieve what they said they could – and would – do?

Few, on any side, fully appreciated the enormity of the task. When the partnership between Afghanistan and the west began in 2002, during what became known as the “honeymoon years”, the country did not have a functioning telephone system, much less computers; a financial system, including a new currency, had to be built from scratch; warlords had more men under arms than the national army; and many in a generation born in war were impoverished and illiterate. The charismatic new leader, Hamid Karzai, had, as Lamb puts it, “no experience of running anything”.

What made it worse was that Nato powers and their allies weren’t really sure what their promise meant. As the years went by, the goalposts kept moving. Was theirs a narrowly defined mission to track down al-Qaeda, as some in the US administration argued? Or was this a much more demanding and costly engagement of “nation-building”? When British troops finally went out to Helmand in 2006 they were told that it was a “peace support” mission. It turned into Britain’s longest conflict since the Hundred Years War and the longest ever fought by the United States. And it’s not over yet.

In his book, Fairweather reveals the pressures and shifting priorities for individual Nato armies. Hard decisions about battle plans and deployments were distorted by rivalries among senior Nato officers and a dysfunctional chain of command between national and international forces. Once politicians and diplomats joined the fray, an even bigger battle of wills complicated bloody battles on the ground. Even when realities should have dictated a change of course, “The plans were the plans and . . . there would not be any backtracking.”

This is a history seared on the broken hearts of all too many families in Britain, Afghanistan and beyond. A dusty town such as Sangin, with a population of 14,000, cost Britain a third of its casualties. Fairweather writes of one of them, the 20-year-old rifleman Allan Arnold, “found hanged in the woods near his barracks. A note on his body, addressed to his mother, explained that he couldn’t cope any longer.”

In 2010, I attended one of the training sessions of the current army chief, General Nick Carter, for his troops before they went into Kandahar, the most crucial province in the fight against the Taliban. By then, “shoulder to shoulder” had been translated into Dari as “shohna ba shohna” and the mission was called “Moshtarak”, or “Together”. It was to be nothing less than a revolution in how British soldiers would live and work, side by side, with their Afghan ­counterparts. Yet, despite some successes, gaps in resources, training, culture and expectations often pulled them apart.

In October 2010, on the day that a long-planned military operation around Kandahar was being launched, I visited Karzai in his heavily fortified palace compound and asked him about it. “I’m against it,” he declared. “But you’re the commander-in-chief,” I replied. “What can I do?” he shrugged. The president, who rarely numbered among the fighters when he was part of the Afghan mujahedin battling Soviet occupation, was a reluctant and at times downright hostile commander-in-chief. It didn’t help that he wasn’t treated like one, either. The US general Stanley McChrystal, who built one of the best working relationships with him, told me that on one occasion when he went to the palace to tell Karzai about an imminent major military operation, the president replied: “It’s the first time someone has come to ask me about an operation.”

This is a critical point – perhaps the most critical point of all – and both Lamb and Fairweather keep coming back to it. All too often, Afghans aren’t even consulted about plans for their own country.

It wasn’t just the military that misspent millions. Lamb writes, “The US agricultural department spent $34.4m trying to create a market for soy beans, which Afghans had never eaten, and which, like mushrooms, they had no idea how to cook.” Even the British, who pride themselves on knowing the history, commit ­embarrassing mistakes. A David Attenborough film of oceans and dolphins jolts tribal elders who have never seen the sea. They can’t understand why British soldiers and civilians are “projecting monsters on their wall”. By 2007 the new British ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, assessed that building a “viable, truly national government” would take 30 years. But most countries were already starting to look towards the exit.

“There isn’t a day when I don’t think, ‘If only,’” the former CIA official Gary Bernt­sen tells Lamb about the botched mission in December 2001 to get Osama Bin Laden while he was still in the Tora Bora caves of eastern Afghanistan. There is a lot of “if only” in these books.

One of the many interesting threads in Fairweather’s account starts from the Bonn conference of November 2001 to choose a new leadership as Taliban rule crumbled. No one from the Taliban was invited: it would have been unthinkable at the time. But the then UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi now calls it, with palpable regret, the “original sin”. Fairweather finds that over the next decade, many possible openings to engage were not explored, or were quickly shut down. This is a very big “what if” to which there is no certain answer.

Meanwhile, the west’s failure to confront Pakistan’s double-dealing over the ­Taliban was one of many strains in an increasingly poisoned relationship with President ­Karzai. Lamb provides some jaw-dropping examples of “operational complicity” between Pakistani soldiers along the border and the Taliban, fighting on the other side.

The situation in Iraq casts an even longer shadow, from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when the Bush administration started plotting an Iraqi war, to the years after the fall of the Taliban. Then, when General David Petraeus was sent from Iraq to Afghanistan to oversee a “surge” in troops and resources, he brought a team that often saw Afghanistan through an Iraqi prism.

This is not, however, a history without men and women who tried to do good. In Fairweather’s book, we read about a 26-year-old Australian, Tom Gregg, a UN diplomat, who took great personal risks to make slow but steady progress in establishing trust in Paktia Province, where few foreigners dare to work. There are others like him, from many nations, who continue to work in or on Afghanistan. Afghans, though, will tell you that they – and only they – can put and keep their country on a more secure road to recovery. And Afghan women will tell you their problems did not begin or end with the Taliban. They still look for our support.

The mistakes and misunderstandings of the past 13 and a half years are often explained away by Afghanistan’s forbidding landscape and its ferocious spirit that resists invaders and buries them in a “graveyard of empires”. But Mohammad Gul Barahawi, an old man with a grey turban and a beard, imparts some important wisdom to Lamb: “Let me say this. The one who comes as brother will be treated as such. Those who come to betray us will be sent away.”

In recent years, western officials have often invoked phrases such as “No one expected it to become Switzerland” – a wording that both amuses and insults Afghans, who point out that they never asked or wanted to be Swiss. Phrases such as “good enough” (for Afghans) became the new gold standard as western governments struggled to create a narrative of success. I joked with an Afghan friend that the country’s Free and Fair Electoral Forum should be renamed the “Good Enough Electoral Forum”.

Afghans have to shoulder their share of the blame. A failure to tackle corruption, including the vast vote-rigging, as well as their personal and political vendettas, are also part of this chequered history.

General Carter shares this reflection with Lamb: “I think the most important lesson I learned from all of this is before you get involved in these problems it’s very important you have an understanding what the nature of the problem is, and then set your level of ambition accordingly.”

One hopes that if men and women of goodwill, with great resources and troops, ever try to put a country together again, they will remember that, even then, it’s still not good enough. 

Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent. She has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1988

This article appears in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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