In November 2008, an Estonian minister by the name of Harri Tiido was being given a tour of Helmand province. Estonians were stationed in Nawzad, which had once been a town of 30,000 people, but was now deserted, “with the two sides dug into first world war-type trenches with their lines 300 yards apart”. After receiving the usual PowerPoint briefing, Tiido was asked by his British hosts if he had any questions: “I have only one,” he said. “What the fuck are we doing here?”
The minister at least knew what he was talking about. During the previous Afghan war, Tiido had been a conscript in the Soviet 40th Army. The Soviets had gone the same way as the Brits in the 19th century, beating a hasty retreat from a land often invaded but never subdued – a land, according to Christina Lamb, “of pomegranates and war”. This was the longest war in British living memory, and the longest in American history, one that has seen hundreds of soldiers come home in body bags, tens of thousands of civilians dead, and to what end?
This is a journey through more than a decade of hell and futility, written vividly
Lamb spent 13 years on and off in a country that she came to love. Arriving straight after 9/11 at the start of what George Bush claimed would be a swift incursion to snuff out Osama bin Laden’s terrorist cell and, as an optional extra, to remove the . Operation Enduring Freedom turned out to be none of the above.
This is a journey through more than a decade of hell and futility, written vividly, with emotion but mercifully shorn of polemic. The author gets to know a number of the main characters well. One of her first sources was well before the Americans identified him as the man they could do business with. Over the years, Karzai becomes a prisoner in his own fortified compound, increasingly furious with the erstwhile “liberators” and mired in corruption. The author has much sympathy for the squaddies and their commanders, who are charged with an impossible mission. She describes in vivid detail going on foot patrol in Helmand. The British commander concedes that they have no interpreter, adding: “We don’t know if people are friend or foe until they fire.”
The war becomes an industry. The number of arrivals and departures at the airfield at Camp Bastion, from jumbo jets to unmanned Reaper drones, . The Americans spend more on Afghanistan than they did on the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe after the second world war. Warlords who would relish torturing their opponents are given palaces, reinforced cars, trips to Dubai for R&R and to Germany to get their teeth fixed.
The hapless number crunchers back home dispense with any of the checks they would normally make. Of the many vignettes about waste and corruption, this one is my favourite: more than $3m is spent on patrol boats that end up languishing unused in a Virginia warehouse. “Somehow each of the eight boats had cost $375,000 – far more than the usual £50,000 usual price tag – before anyone realised that had no coastline.” At one point, the British sent grey-suited customs officers to Kabul airport; incoming passengers, groaning under the purchases they had made abroad, would simply walk around them.
In the post-“victory” period of the early 00s, Kabul became a pocket party town for westerners and a clique of westernised Afghans. Those living in the “Kabubble” enjoyed a raucous social life fuelled by illicit alcohol, cheap hash and the adrenaline of fear. Among the many expat ventures were a sea-green-and-chrome “lounge bar” serving margaritas and club steaks, a Deutsche Hof Bierhaus offering pork chops and sauerkraut and a French restaurant replete with swimming pool, which the foreigners dubbed Latmo.
The author scarcely disguises her contempt for the political masters back home. Of the many absurd utterances, the hubris of Labour’s defence secretary John Reid is hard to beat: “We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years, and without firing a single shot.” At every step of the way, the strategy changed and the strategy failed. The initial invasion was a rapid success (just as Iraq was). By 2003, the attention of George W Bush and Tony Blair was focused on the newly invented ogre, Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan became an afterthought. “Nation-building”, such as there was, stopped. The warlords and the Taliban regrouped. Repeated attempts, dating back to 1999, to snatch Bin Laden failed.
The initial – rooting out terrorism – got nowhere. That was followed by the need to destroy the opium crop. That morphed into cementing democracy and the rule of law, finally the vague and desperate aspiration to improve infrastructure and “quality of life”. The hubris was accompanied by self-delusion that Pakistan was part of the solution, rather than the problem, its security service, the and disrupter of attempts to bring a modicum of stability to Afghanistan.
In the introduction to this most captivating of war journals, Lamb poses the following rhetorical question: “How on earth had the might of , 48 countries with satellites in the skies, 140,000 troops dropping missiles the price of a Porsche, not managed to defeat a group of ragtag religious students led by a one-eyed mullah his own colleagues described as ‘dumb in the mouth’?”
Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World by Christina Lamb (Harper Collins, £25). To order a copy for £20, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.