(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)
Christina Lamb begins her heartfelt memoir of 27 years of reporting from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington in FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by describing the British withdrawal ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan that for her symbolized the transfer of power to the Afghan army. It might have been a happy occasion, but for Lamb it reminded her of the numerous errors in British policy in the region, the 453 British soldiers who were killed, the hundreds who had lost limbs to roadside bombs, and those psychologically scarred for life. Lamb also points to the tens of thousands of Afghans who had lost relatives, homes, and who had become refugees. By October, 2014 England was ending its 4th war in Afghanistan dating back to the 19th century, but this was their longest and leadership was determined to remove all evidence that they were ever there. What remained was a war that continues today, and it seems as if it has come full circle as there are current reports that the Russian government is supplying weapons to the Taliban, an organization who as mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Lamb presents an excellent history of a period of Anglo-American foreign policy that is wrought with mistakes, ignorance, and doing too little too late. In so doing, Lamb discusses an exceptional amount of information and analysis interspersed with her personal observations of her tenure in southwest Asia. She follows the story from the Soviet invasion of 1979, their ultimate defeat, the failure of the United States to maintain interest in the area, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, the tragedy of Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, the Mumbai attack, the killing of Bin-Laden, and the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops by 2014. What is amazing is that Lamb seems to be everywhere that major events are transpiring. Further, her “army” of contacts and sources make her writing indispensable to understand the history of the region.
One of her most telling comments among many throughout her narrative is that the United States had spent more money in Afghanistan than it had on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. Lamb watched events in Afghanistan for over 13 years and wondered how a war could be fought when there was no real border with Pakistan, which provided the enemy with safe haven. Further, she was incredulous when the United States fought a war on the “cheap,” committing few troops and soon becoming distracted by a new war in Iraq of its own making based on false information. In addition, the US turned a blind eye to its “supposed” ally, Pakistan whose intelligence service, the ISI had created the Taliban and provided an escape route for Osama Bin-Laden when American Special Forces had him cornered in Tora Bora in December, 2001. The entire operation and decision making can be summed up in one term, and I apologize if it insults some – a “cluster-fuck.” Much of Lamb’s analysis reminds me of Francis Fitzgerald’s FIRE IN THE LAKE, as the United States seemed purposefully ignorant of the culture that they were up against and did little to rectify it until it was too late.
Throughout her memoir Lamb describes the beautiful landscapes that she experienced, be it the Hindu Kush or the flowers and beautiful kites of Kabul. Despite all the tragedies that she witnessed she always seems to return to the joys that mother-nature afforded. It seems to me the major tragedy was how the Bush administration brushed off all warnings concerning a possible al-Qaeda attack from CIA Director George Tenet, Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terror advisor, members of the Northern Alliance, and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bush advisors saw this as sour grapes since the Russians had been defeated in Afghanistan by Bin-Laden and Company and the result was 9/11.
(Pakistani President Parvis Musharraf)
Lamb describes numerous characters who are germane to her story. The first, is indicative of the myriad of types she ran across. Wais Faizi, who managed the Mustafa Hotel and had lived in the United States, was known as “the Fonz of Kabul,” and drove around in a 1968 Chevy Camaro convertible. More significant was her relationship with Hamid Karzai who at the outset warned that the ISI was funneling American aid money to the Taliban. Lamb follows Karzai’s political career and his tenuous relationship with the United States and Pakistan throughout his presidency. James Dobbins, the United States Special Negotiator for Afghanistan is introduced with his requests from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 25,000 American troops to stabilize Afghanistan once the Taliban were on the run. His response sets the theme for US policy – they were already planning for Iraq by December, 2001 and stated that “we don’t do police work.” CIA operative Gary Bersten is another character that is symbolic of American negligence in response to 9/11. Bersten was with a small group of special operatives working with Afghan tribal forces trying to root out al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden from Tora Bora. He requested troops to seal the Afghani-Pakistan border to block their escape. Rumsfeld and the Bush administration refused as General Tommy Franks was already gaming the coming war in Iraq. A 2009 Senate report reinforced Bersten’s view that the United States had passed on killing Bin-Laden – we can only conjecture how history might have been altered had we not done so.
(Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)
Of course Lamb describes the duplicity of General Parvis Musharraf, the Pakistani leader who the US tried to convince to turn against the Taliban. But he had his own difficulties with the Islamized leadership of his military and the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban. Musharraf did his best to squeeze the United States and in the end both sides gained what it wanted. Lamb’s explanations are clear, succinct, and easily understood with vignettes that are priceless, i.e., according to Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage on the topic of whether the Pakistanis could be trusted, “with Pakistan you get part of the story, never the whole story….How do you know when the Pakistanis are lying? Their lips are moving.”
Lamb’s discussion of the ISI-Taliban relationship goes back to 1979 and is developed through the Taliban’s victory in 1994. In a chapter entitled “Meeting Colonel Imam” Lamb lays out the history of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the development and training of the Taliban under the leadership of Amir Sultan Tamar, a Brigadier General in the Pakistani army who had trained with American Special Forces in 1974. Tamar reviewed the history of ISI control of the Afghan war against the Soviets and how they trained and armed the Islamic resistance. The ISI pulled the wool over American eyes as they controlled weapon distribution and strategy against the Soviets until they forced them out in 1989. The American role and naïveté is plain for all to see. Once the Soviets left, and the US turned away from Afghanistan, the ISI and its Taliban allies would achieve power in Kabul. Lamb’s analysis and depth of knowledge contribute to an understanding of how the US was duped by the Pakistanis in the 1980s, a process that would continue for decades.
In reading Lamb’s memoir one can only become frustrated and angry. She castigated British policy makers as on a number of occasions they placed their soldiers in untenable situations without the proper equipment. Her discussion of Sangin, the world’s largest narco state, is unnerving and resulted in numerous deaths that could have been prevented. Her comments at times are sarcastic and acerbic as she describes what was supposed to be the “post-Taliban world.” Her access to Karzai allows her to pinpoint the problem that is Afghanistan; corruption, tribal rivalry, the lack of border control, and his relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf. Lamb confronts Karzai repeatedly and receives the same tired answers dealing with security and trying to balance the different tribal interests. The greatest problems seem to center on Islamic infiltration of the Pakistani military, and the radicalization of South Waziristan on the Pakistani border. This created sanctuary and infiltration routes for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan. By 2007 they had returned in full creating a renewed Afghani civil war.
Lamb zeroes in on the British role in Helmand province and the problem created by the drug trade. Helmand produces 95% of the opium smuggled into Europe. Further, since the opium poppies grown by Afghani farmers are their only source of income it becomes almost impossible to make positive inroads because there is no substitute to support their families. Lamb’s discussion of the interrelationship between the drug trade, the warlords, government corruption, the Taliban, and plight of the farmers is excellent.
(Taliban fighter, Helmand Province)
One of the most poignant and aggravating chapters in the book deals with the murder of a young female poet, Nadia Anjuman by her husband. Lamb uses her life story as a vehicle to describe the lives of women under the Taliban and Karzai regimes. Using the Herat Literary Society to focus on the treatment of women, Lamb describes the lives of women from the lowliest wife, to a woman who created a factory to produce jam, to the only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, to an outspoken female member of parliament, all who lived in fear for their lives. On paper it may have appeared that the plight of women improved once the Taliban was defeated, but today the reality is the opposite.
Lamb takes the reader through Afghan history since the 19th century by presenting an “assassination tour,” describing the deaths of most Afghani kings and presidents. It is no wonder that Karzai is called the “mayor of Kabul.” Violence in Afghanistan increased in 2006 as the Taliban began to adopt Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics from Iraq – ieds, suicide bombers etc. Lamb also provides repeated examples of Pakistani duplicity by allowing rocket attacks from its territory, supplying weapons and safe haven for the Taliban, and the two-faced approach of President Musharraf, despite receiving $100 million in aid per month. The end result is 2.6 million Afghani refugees in Pakistan. Dealing with Musharraf was surreal, almost an alternate reality as the US tried to influence his actions. For the Pakistani president it was more important to keep his border with Afghanistan calm so he could concentrate on Kashmir and India. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto fit the pattern of violence that was growing worse within Pakistan under Musharraf. Her return in 2007 angered the Pakistani military who saw her as a political and economic threat, ultimately causing her death. The military denied complicity, but all the evidence seems to lead to their leadership.
According to British General Martin Carlton-Smith, by 2008 the goal of ending the insurgency in Helmand was giving way to reducing it sufficiently in order for the Afghan army to take control in some manageable way. London realized that the only solution was by negotiating with the Taliban. A political settlement was the only way to bring peace as it had done in Northern Ireland. For Lamb it was the first time higher ups had admitted the war could not be won militarily. When these comments went public, taken in association with British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq in September, 2007, and major disagreements between the US and British commands, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saw it as defeatism.
However, by 2008 the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and grew increasingly daring as they set their sights on Kabul with a series of devastating suicide bombings and assassinations. Evidence emerged that attacks on the Indian embassy and the Kabul Serena Hotel were directed by Pakistani handlers. A CIA investigation led to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, a group with strong ties to the ISI. With the attacks the US could no longer ignore what their Pakistani ally was perpetrating. For Washington it served as a wake up for the reality that was Pakistan.
By 2009 Lamb was transferred to Washington as she was fascinated by the new Obama administration. What followed was the disjointed policy of a president who wanted to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama was a conflicted president who had no desire to continue fighting. He distrusted his military leadership and the feelings were reciprocated. Lamb presents Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and their larger than life personalities and strategies. But the overriding concern was Obama’s view of wars that he had little interest in continuing. In addition, Lamb is correct that the problem was not military but political, especially in Afghanistan where the government was the fifth most corrupt regime in the world and the people had no faith in “Karzai Incorporated.” Petraeus knew early on that for counter-insurgency to work you needed local partners. Instead he had Karzai and Musharraf’s successor, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower. Lamb concludes that Obama and Joe Biden, his Vice President were out of their league and despite agreeing to a surge of 30,000 troops he set a deadline for their return – telegraphing to the Taliban to hang on for two more years. After accompanying Biden to Islamabad, US Senator Lindsay Graham summed it up best, “the whole fucking place is burning down here, pal!”
There is a sadness to Lamb’s account in that so many errors were made and so much duplicity existed as she encounters the myriad of factions that existed in the region. By 2014 when her story ends things have grown increasingly worse, more so than they might have been before 9/11. For Lamb, the region is like a magnet whose pull she could not escape. Even when all seemed lost she is drawn to one final visit. There have been many books written about events in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Lamb‘s account must be placed very close to the top of the list, particularly because of her values and journalistic expertise.
(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)