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Book Review: Christina Lamb’s Farewell Kabul

June 10, 2015


When I was last in Saudi Arabia, I encountered a guy from Pakistan in his early thirties. Good-looking and well-educated, he communicated with consummate ease. He had the bearing of someone who comes from the Pakistani elite, of which the late Benazir Bhutto and her family were also members. It turned out that he does. The clue was in his name, which I shan’t disclose for reasons of confidentiality.

Thinking that, like Benazir, he must have been educated at Oxford, the London School of Economics or some similar high-status western university, I was surprised to learn that he’d never studied outside Pakistan. Instead, he holds a master’s degree from one of the top business schools in his home country.

A clear example of my western filter – a perception garnered from several decades of following global politics that Pakistan, a state teetering on the edge of failure, couldn’t possibly still have institutions capable of turning out people of the calibre of this perceptive, intelligent and widely-read individual.

My friend was the first to admit that Pakistan is not in a great state these days. Perhaps that was why he was in Saudi Arabia rather than back home trying to help repair his fractured country.

He had one talent that could never have been burnished at Oxford or Harvard. He had the ability to think of a story – not a case study – to illustrate a point. In that respect he reminded me of Tariq Ali, another upper-crust Pakistani. Like my new friend, Tariq Ali has lived most of his adult life outside his country of origin. For me, notwithstanding his huge output of political commentary since he was a leftist firebrand in the Britain of my youth, Ali is the author of the Islam Quintet, five exquisite historical novels set in Muslim lands. A reminder that there’s another tradition in Pakistan, a love of devotional music and poetry – typified by the Sufi qawwali and the Urdu ghazal – that tends to be forgotten when we think of the country today.

When the world outside the subcontinent thinks of modern Pakistan it is often of a nation with hundred nuclear warheads at its disposal. Where howling mobs lynch people accused of apostasy from Islam, and stone adulterers in remote villages where the government’s writ does not extend . A country in which terrorists think nothing of gunning down 134 pupils at an army school. Whose army intelligence service, the ISI, is a state within a state, as pervasive as the Stasi were in East Germany, and just as ruthless. Whose politicians are corrupt and duplicitous. Where 20,000 madrassas are busy turning out the Taliban of the future, nourished by funding and extremist ideology exported from the Middle East. Whose government has allowed its intelligence service to train and aid the Afghan Taliban while it simultaneously receives billions of dollars a year in military and other aid from the West, most notably the US. Whose economy and foreign policy has since its establishment in 1948 been dictated by a visceral hatred of India, its southern neighbour. And whose unfortunate population is often cursed by earthquakes, flooding and poverty.

Few journalists have provided a more coherent portrayed of this Pakistan than Christina Lamb, whose recently-published book, Farewell Kabul – From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, is a very personal account of the western intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11. Her notional end point is the departure in December 2014 of most of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) contingents, including the those of the US and Britain. Between 2001 and then, she spent much of her professional life in Afghanistan covering the conflict and its byzantine military, social and political dimensions.

Though the book is nominally about Afghanistan, it’s as much about Pakistan, because it’s almost impossible write about the former without reference to the role played by the latter.

To be a successful war correspondent you need the bravery of a soldier and the curiosity of a detective. Christina Lamb has both qualities in abundance. Apart from risking her life on a regular basis in Kabul, Herat, and the Pakistani border cities of Peshawar and Quetta, she survived a vicious fire-fight while with a company of British soldiers in Helmand under attack by the Taliban.

As a personal friend of Hamid Karzai, she watched him develop from an urbane Pashtun tribal luminary into an embattled and seemingly paranoid president, raging against the innocent casualties inflicted by indiscriminate American air strikes while being sucked into tribal politics, condoning endemic corruption and ceding much of his authority to regional warlords.

She describes the naivety of the British commanders and politicians who deceived themselves into thinking that their counter-insurgency experience in Northern Ireland would stand them in good stead in Helmand. Men and women with good intentions whose scant knowledge of the culture and politics contributed to a hopeless and bloody deployment with few results beyond the destruction of lives, the alienation of the local population and the quadrupling of the opium poppy harvest.

The Americans fared little better. Just as in Vietnam, they were drawn into the conflict, and proved as incapable as the British of coming up with a winning strategy against the Taliban. Attempts to gain hearts and minds were trumped by ham-fisted military tactics. Failure to understand the dynamics on the ground allowed factions to dupe the Americans into wiping out rivals who had been falsely identified as Taliban. Billions of dollars handed out for development ended up in the offshore bank accounts of the warlords.

The chain of command within the multinational ISAF was frequently fudged, and to make matters worse, a separate force tasked with hunting Al-Qaeda roamed around the country, unaccountable to the ISAF commanders.

And as the conflict raged through the country, Kabul stood alone and isolated, a fortress frequently penetrated suicide attackers from the Taliban and the Haqqani network, another group allegedly supported from Pakistan. The city was flooded with aid workers and foreign consultants, most of whom rarely ventured beyond its fortified perimeter. And in his heavily guarded palace was Karzai, an increasingly lonely and bitter figure. The Mayor of Kabul, as Lamb called him.

Karzai’s most consistent theme was the duplicity of Pakistan. Throughout the years of conflict, the Taliban would come and go across the border with ease, encouraged, aided and abetted by the ISI. The intelligence service created the Taliban in the 90’s with the purpose of ending the fighting between rival mujaheddin warlords and installing an Islamist government that posed no threat to Pakistan. After the defeat of the Taliban in 2002 and throughout the subsequent insurgency, elements of the ISI continued to regard them as “our boys”.All the while Pakistan’s political and military leaders would deflect Afghan and American protests by claiming that these were the actions of “rogue elements” and “retired officers”. ISAF’s reliance on supply routes through the country, and concern that abandoning Pakistan as an ally might lead to her nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, ensured that the US continued to bankroll the military despite the duplicitous activities of the ISI. And according to Lamb, Pakistan’s generals did very nicely out of the kick-backs they received as the result of controlling the supply infrastructure.

As the conflict ground on, both India and Pakistan had their 9/11 moments. In India the attack on Mumbai carried out by an Islamist group in Pakistan and allegedly orchestrated by the ISI took them close to war with their neighbours. In Pakistan a home-grown Taliban insurgency threatened both the military and political establishments. Thus Pakistan was able to say to the Americans that they too had suffered huge civilian and military casualties in their war against terror. Yet while this was going on the “rogue elements and retired officers” continued their campaign against the foreign forces across the border.

To this day Pakistan remains an ally of the United States, dependent on American dollars yet harbouring a deep reservoir of hatred for the world’s faltering policeman.

Great journalists are more than reporters of great events. Men and women like William Russell during the Crimean War, Vasily Grossman, who reported on the Red Army campaigns in the Second World War, John Simpson in Iraq and Marie Colvin in Syria have all been infused with a sense of morality that is inseparable from, and informs, their work. Christine Lamb is no different. Her love for the two tortured countries she describes in Farewell Kabul shines out from the narrative. She writes as a human being, not as a reporter so numbed by the bad things she has witnessed that she is no longer capable of being shocked. The book is her story as much as it is a tale of cynicism, brutality, deceit, incompetence and greed.

She’s written a sad tale that is far from its conclusion. As she points out, the influence of Afghan conflicts continues in Iraq and Syria, where the spiritual heirs of Osama bin Laden are achieving success beyond his wildest dreams with tactics that even he would not countenance.

She finishes the book on a deeply emotional note as she prepared to leave Kabul:

“At the entrance to the plane I stopped, and unbidden tears ran down my cheeks. ‘you are scared of the Afghan plane?’ asked the young Afghan woman at my side who I’d shared biscuits with in the terminal, and who was headed back to Turkey with her sister. ‘No,’ I shook my head.

‘Are you scared of Ebola?’ She asked.

‘No!’ I replied, smiling through my tears. ‘I am just sad.’

She looked confused, and I shook my head. It would take a whole book to explain. Sad because I really believed that things didn’t have to be like this. Sad for all the hopes there once were, and for the lessons we did not learn from our ancestors and others who had tried to tame these lands before. Sad for all those lives lost or damaged. For the soldier Luke McCulloch, for Wais ‘the Fonz of Kabul’, for Nadia the poet, for Benazir, for all the tens of thousands of people killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11, and the hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Syria.

Sad that I didn’t know how to help the women we left behind. Sad that thousands of schools were still being blown up in Pakistan, which despite everything had not stopped allowing the snakes in its garden. Sad that no Western leader took on Saudi Arabia, which had funded many of these jihadi movements, exported the Wahhabi ideology through madrassas, and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11. Sad that the poppy fields of Afghanistan had become an unstoppable tide, poisoning the world’s streets in even greater numbers. Sad that $1 trillion had been spent in Afghanistan, yet its children still went to school in tents. Sad that because of what had happened we wouldn’t intervene again even when hundreds of thousands were killed. Sad that those sixty words drawn up in the White House in haste after 9/11 had indeed, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee feared, led to open-ended war. Most of all sad because I wasn’t sure we had learned anything.”

Farewell Kabul is an important work because the agony of Afghanistan and Pakistan still goes on. To understand the chapters to come it helps to know the story so far. And a thousand miles to the west, another violent progeny of 9/11 is raging. The politics of the Middle East are no less tortuous, and no less devastating. They are closely linked to the Afghan conflict. I hope for Christina Lamb’s sake that she is not tempted to immerse herself in Syria and Iraq as she did in Afghanistan. I reckon she deserves a rest.

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