Sherard Cowper-Coles is an unrepentant, twenty-first century imperialist who longs for the days of the British Raj. His new book reveals his inability to accomplish anything in Afghanistan except help the US reestablish its hegemony in the region.
Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign (Harper Press 2011), 352pp.
Sherard Cowper-Coles was Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 until 2010. In his new book, Cables from Kabul: The inside story of the West’s Afghanistan campaign (CFK for short, or KFK, Killing from Kabul to be cheeky) we quickly learn that Cowper-Coles lives in a hermetically-sealed snow globe. Inside the glass dome is a plastic figurine of him sitting behind a desk, a portrait of Her Royal Majesty, a map of Afghanistan, and the mighty Hindu Kush mountains. Shake up the globe and watch as a blizzard of white flakes blot out the scene. When the storm subsides, all around Cowper-Coles swirls the slaughter of the people of Afghanistan. The ambassador is bathed in blood and bits of blown-up body parts. Streaks of crimson stain the painting of the Queen. The Hindu Kush that, as Cowper-Coles writes, he loves to view from the cockpit of a Royal Air Force (RAF) Hercules, is full of deep, dusty bomb craters.
There are three ways to understand CFK. The first is to look at the sixteen pages of color photographs replete with pithy captions. The images capture Cowper-Coles’ role in Afghanistan and convey a visual truth that his biased writing denies. The first photo is of him and a helicopter: ‘Every flight was a thrill’, he declares. Chinook and Apache helicopter gunships have the opposite effect on the Afghan people on the ground. Next is a photo of the British Residence in Kabul during the ‘halcyon days’ when the British Minister was the ‘best housed man in Asia’. Cowper-Coles is an unrepentant, twenty-first century imperialist who longs for the days of the British Raj. It was an era when white men carried a burden and the ‘dark peoples’ knew their place. At the start of his tenure in Kabul, the British tried to buy back the sprawling embassy from the government of Pakistan. Over 100 million pounds was allocated to renovate the dilapidated property. But the answer from Islamabad was no, much to the chagrin of Cowper-Coles.
The ambassador’s residence, and the machinations that take place inside and out, read like a modern day Bleak House (Charles Dickens’ brilliant novel about an endlessly destructive lawsuit that corrupts and bankrupts everyone involved). There are several shots of the author, tricked out in military gear, standing smiling with the troops. He writes, ‘it was fun dressing up in desert camouflage and donning helmets’. In another photo, his back to the camera, Cowper-Coles watches a coffin being carried to a plane that is headed back to Old Blighty. Dead soldiers are ‘sad cargo’. The book ignores the anti-war movement in Britain led by the Stop the War Coalition and Military Families Against the War. Cowper-Coles spins PR from Kabul to support the war. And in his private letters to the families of deceased soldiers, he creates a simple fiction that their deaths were for a noble cause: fighting terrorism and the Taliban.
The next set of pictures are classic photo-ops with the rich and powerful who made Cowper-Coles’ life exciting and miserable: the cold and condescending Condoleezza Rice, the über-bully Richard Holbrooke, the idiot-prince Charles, whose ambition in life was to be an inserted tampon, and the corrupt and US-compliant Hamid Karzai. One of the most insulting photos is of Cowper-Coles and his deputy depicting both men in a beard-growing contest. The last photograph speaks volumes about Cowper-Coles’ cloistered Afghan existence. He stands in the foreground and behind him are eight menacing armed men, his Close Protection Team (CPT). Perhaps the bodyguards prevented him from seeing the carnage the occupation caused. The only ordinary Afghans Cowper-Coles ever interacts with are embassy servants and chauffeurs, apart from the time he climbed the city walls and sprinted past ‘chickens and children picking their way over the shoals of rubbish and streams of sewage’ (p.33). He divides Afghan males into three categories: ‘Ten-dollar-a-day-Taliban’, ‘Have-a-go-Taliban’, and ‘Farm-boy Taliban’ (p.66).
The second and quickest way to get the gist of CFK ― a super-tweeted Cliff Notes ― is to read the glossary of abbreviations. The list starts with ANP: Afghan National Police, and ends with VBIED: vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Force and fire. The third way to read CFK is to scan the index. You will not find the subject words imperialism, massacre, torture, wedding parties, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), or the names Malalai Joya, Rose Gentle, Tariq Ali or John Pilger.
The subject heading that distills the book best is ‘Afghanistan’. The topics include: nature of war, pre-conflict history, international involvement, official visits to, counter-insurgency strategy and security, success of insurgency, insurgency spreads, troop surge, private armies and warlords, terrorist acts, prisons and prisoners, intervention questioned, women repressed, presidential elections, border with Pakistan, drug trade and control, Iran, journalist and media, author leaves as ambassador. The index lists the leading British pro-war political and cultural elites who both destroy and steal Afghan beauty: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, David Miliband, Sandy Gall (Scottish), Rory Stewart (Scottish) and Michael Semple (Irish).
Finally, and fourthly, I read the entire book and it is alternately appalling and boring. Each chapter consists of omissions, half-truths, and misrepresentations mixed with Cowper-Coles’ crushingly-boring daily schedule. It always starts with him eating porridge at breakfast briefings. The day is packed with one meaningless meeting after another where no decisions are made except the date of the next meeting, and hours of eyelid-drooping video-conferencing with Whitehall. He confesses that his entire week consists of ‘preparing for, attending, or recording meetings with fellow Westerners’ (p.93). Cowper-Coles accomplishes nothing.
In CFK, Cowper-Coles repeats the mainstream media evasions about the invasion of Afghanistan and the role of the Taliban. In September 2001, the Taliban offered to extradite Osama bin Laden in exchange for evidence that he was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Colin Powell agreed to give the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaaef, documented evidence against Bin Laden. He never did. At the same time, diplomats in Pakistan negotiated Bin Laden’s extradition to Peshawar where he would be put under house arrest and stand trial. The supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar and Bin Laden agreed to the terms. These overtures were dismissed and the US attacked. Soon after the invasion, top Taliban commanders, with the permission of Mullah Omar, tried to surrender to the forces of Hamid Karzai. The Taliban exchanged a series of communiqués with the nascent government to work out the details of their abdication. But Karzai’s puppet masters at the Whitehouse pressured him not to negotiate with the Taliban.
Based on insider reports from Richard Clarke, Bob Woodward, and WikiLeaks, it is indisputable that Bush, Cheney, and Rice wanted war in Afghanistan to reestablish US hegemony in the region. For career diplomats like Cowper-Coles, these inconvenient truths must be silenced, buried, or vociferously denied. His job has always depended on keeping his gob shut and he is good at it. As a former diplomat in Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, even when he was gobsmacked at the brutality of the host government, he kept silent. Men like Cowper-Coles who study the cultures and languages of other countries, who profess with passion to respect and admire them, but preside over the occupation, oppression, and annihilation of those same societies, are the really dangerous ones.
From his protected perch in embassy bubble-land, he drafts telegrams and lends tacit support to every failed and incoherent strategy concocted by NATO, even when he disagrees or has doubts: clear, hold, build; capture or kill; course corrections; cops and courts; night raids; COIN; provincial reconstruction teams; aerial-spraying of poppies; ‘making progress, challenges remain’ (p.180). He even proposes his own wacky scheme: A voluntary ‘community defense’ of Afghan men armed with Kalashnikovs tasked with keeping the Taliban out (p.61). Good luck with that one! Hillary Clinton’s preposterous new policy for Afghanistan called ‘Fight, talk, build’, and ‘The New Silk Road’, are the latest iterations of Afghan crazy.
Cowper-Coles breaks up the monotony with ‘breather breaks’ back in the UK and military-charity Christmas balls in Kabul to raise funds for the poor, illiterate, tribal savages of Afghanistan. Black tie meets Black Hawk. He also drinks at the embassy bar pejoratively-named the ‘Inn Fidel’. Macho, para-military British and Australian lager-louts crowd the bar that is housed in portakabins and hit on and ‘break the hearts’ of the single women who staff the embassy (p.95). The entire scene is sickeningly sexist and Cowper-Coles routinely refers to women as girls.
A defining moment in Cowper-Coles’ career is President Karzai’s trip to Scotland to meet the Prince of Wales. Embassy staff make endless preparations, solve logistical hassles, and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on the visit. Cowper-Coles arranges for the prince and the puppet to stroll the grounds of Balmoral Castle. The two men have ‘baths, chats, and supper’ (p.107). The visit was an orgiastic experience for Cowper-Coles who is enamored with wealth, royalty, and masculine power. He writes, ‘the Afghan-British relationship was set on a new course. It felt good to be Ambassador to Afghanistan at such a time, making a difference’ (p.109). What difference? Cowper-Cole’s snobbery, hubris, and colossal ability to deny reality define his impotent career at every turn.
The two most cringe-inducing chapters are titled, ‘Richard Holbrooke’s Flying Circus’ and ‘Where’s Dick?’ Both detail Cowper-Coles’ abusive relationship with ringmaster Richard Holbrooke, former US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since his death, the warmonger from Washington is being deified as a peacenik do-gooder. Tony Blair was Bush’s poodle and so Cowper-Coles was Holbrooke’s bitch. The ‘unquiet’ American evokes fear, envy, exhilaration, and loathing on the part of Cowper-Coles. In his second posting as British Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is repeatedly humiliated by Holbrooke.
Still, Cowper-Coles chases his abuser all over the globe ‘by telephone, text, and email and when I could find him, in person’ (p.239). He is told not to call Richard ‘Dick’. Dick keeps him waiting at a posh Paris restaurant, orders the most expensive dishes and Cowper-Coles obediently pays. Always late for meetings, Dick taunts Cowper-Coles, interrupts and ignores him while he obsessively checks his Blackberry. It’s a dog’s life. I waited page after page for Cowper-Coles to grow a spine and scream into Dick’s face, ‘fuck off’! Alas, the moment never comes. The Stockholm Syndrome has so completely hijacked his brain he dedicates the book to his tormentor. The dedication reads: In memory of Richard Holbrooke, who gave his life for peace. In Cowper-Coles’ Orwellian world, war is peace and bullets and bombs win hearts and minds.
Since his book was published, a fiction is being promoted by the mainstream media that all along Cowper-Coles was an outspoken critic of western foreign policy in Afghanistan, he argued for a political solution, and for talks with the Taliban. Complete rubbish. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has been one long war-crime and Cowper-Coles has been deeply complicit in all of it. Cowper–Coles no longer works for Her Royal Majesty but he is still an accomplice to killing. His new post is at BAE Systems, a British arms manufacturer. As international business development director for the Middle East and South East Asia, he will negotiate weapons deals with government and military leaders in those regions.
Inside the snow globe, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles now stands naked and alone. The ambassador has no clothes. Shake up the globe. Watch as bloody hell rains down again.
Helen is an independent journalist based in New York City. She writes about the War on Drugs, healthcare and Afghanistan.