Cables from Kabul by Sherard Cowper-Coles
SCC has been presented as an intelligent dissenter, a man in touch with the reality of Afghanistan. In fact he comes across as a man obsessed with his own little diplomatic world. It’s a world of groupthink in which the Foreign Office and Military protect their own little worlds, at the expense of the nation, and worse, the lives of young men. He has little contact or feel from the lads dying on the ground.
Groupthink 1 - Military intelligence (self-contradictory)
The bottom line is that after ten years, billions spent, thousands of coalition deaths and many more Afghan army and civilian deaths we have failed. Civilian deaths in particular have negated most of the effort. We failed because the truth has been constantly denied, primarily by a military machine that wants to fight and sees this as a means of survival and budgetary protection, especially in the UK, where the old-school tie and educational contacts remain the most powerful method of lobbying.
Military intelligence (sic) is provided by people with an interest in expanding their sphere of influence, fighting wars, mixed with loyalty to the military itself. It results in an insidious groupthink and optimism. We are told that badly written papers from the MOD, full of acronyms and dense prose, repeatedly avoid costings and that when such costings are promised they never appear. Use them or lose them, Sherard” says a senior MOD bod. What on earth do they think they’re doing?
Even on the ground, the rotation of entire brigades on a six monthly basis reduces continuity and effectiveness, as does the generous holidays and rotation of embassy staff. New Brigadiers do what they’re trained to do – launch a new offensive and get some action. In the lack of a clear political strategy, the military are making it worse not better.
At least the British were sensitive to some local needs patrolling with care, not destroying crops, as opposed to the gung-ho Marines blasting their way across the land driven by loyalty to Corps, not country. SCC saw them as practising a form of military colonialism, a role they were ill-equipped to deliver (in this he shows his fondness for British colonialism, which we could presumably deliver).
Groupthink 2 – Old-school
SCC wrote the book in a fit of pique, as he had been denied the job he had been promised by his boss, who took the job himself. So much for integrity in the Foreign Office!. He constantly drops his little references, “my old prep-school friend…been in Pony club with my brothers…Labradors and prep-school lawns…our time together at Oxford…Oxford don..Scottish Dowagers…my club in St James…once examined me for All Souls..official visit to public school in India (Why?)…been at the same Oxford College as me…farcical Prince of Wales visit…graduate of Balliol..” It reaches levels of absurdity when he invites his ‘old school friend’ to deliver an ‘Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ cabaret to squaddies, who were clearly unimpressed by a bunch of aging, public-schoolboy queens delivering daft ditties in Helmand, while their mates were being blow up. They found it ‘poncey’ – what a surprise Sherard.
Groupthink 3 –Foreign Office
The FCO (Foreign Office), of which he is a part, comes across as mired in protocol, obsessed with Royal and VIP visits (27% of all helicopter trips on VIPS!), old-school, public school, Oxbridge hubris. It’s an unreformed colonial office. Thanks god for the politicians. One of the odd aspects of the book is his admiration for Gordon Brown and David Miliband, who had a grasp of the detail, politics and a good relationship with President Karzai. Chris Mullin has already uncovered the absurdities of the Foreign Office in his wonderful memoirs but SCC does it by accident, betraying his ridiculously old-fashioned approach to foreign affairs. No wonder the Americans see the Brits as an out-of-date, toothless bunch of amateurs. The Foreign Office comes across as drawing its credibility from a colonial past, rather than creating the future.
Groupthink 4 –Afghan conference circus
The conference circus is an industry in itself, often in places clearly designed for delegate holidays, rather than practical travel and access. This is a world of policy and planning by Powerpoint. But there’s no sense of challenge to either method or message. His attitudes compare badly with the more honest Europeans who say things such as “What the fuck are we doing here?” SCC gives us a good account of this process but is also complicit in the crime. After a particularly optimistic military presentation by the MOD he says, “to have questioned it would have seemed ill-mannered” (p26). This is a world in which manners matter more than the lives of young men. Later still, on hearing the same old, over-optimistic plans, he “keeps most of his reservations to himself” (p144). Are we really paying him to keep quiet at such events?
Groupthink 5 - journos
Embedded journalism is also a problem, cleverly designed to skew realistic, investigative journalism towards a sympathetic view of the fighting men, who are being injured and killed. The sympathies of the journalists drift towards the soldiers and not the issues. No real sensitivity for the critics of the Afghan policy only a sycophantic approach to old hands like John Simpson, Max Hastings and Sandy Gall.
What to do?
I’ve used the work ‘groupthink’ because it’s so very obvious that the Foreign Office, editorial class and military leaders are all drawn from a narrow group of public schoolboys who all seem to know each other, but show little in the way of innovation objectivity.
The last two short chapters of the book are by far the best, as he gets down to some clear analysis. If only he had briefed the politicians so strongly when he had the job. All he was after in the end was a cushy job heading towards retirement. In a sense I was pleased that he was done over by his boss.
In its favour, the book gives real insights into Afghanistan, the current decade of war and its failures. His final attack on the British military establishment paints them as little more than buffoons, the Americans are playing a game they are ill-equipped to win and the political strategy is flawed. Rather starengely, he does not mention the corruption within Afghanistan (the word doesn’t even appear in the index). No mention of the massive Kabul bank fraud. Why these omissions? In the end this is a book that says much about what is wrong with our foreign policy in Afghanistan, but as an unintended by-product, says just as much about what is wrong with the people who are in charge.