Only a brave journalist would agree to be the guest of honour at a military charity dinner at which more than half of the other invitees are cocksure junior officers just returned from Helmand who think they’ve seen and done it all. Only an exceptional one would leave those same guests in no doubt as to who had actually seen and done more in Afghanistan. Christina Lamb is just such a journalist, and in Farewell Kabul she has produced a brave and exceptional book.
A brave book because it cannot have been easy for Lamb – whose love for Afghanistan comes across on every page – to have written what is necessarily a downbeat and at times despairing account of the past, present and likely future of that beguiling, benighted country. And an exceptional one because among the many books which have now been written on the recent history of the region, few have succeeded in distilling such a vast and tangled mess of geopolitics, conflict, strategy and vibrant personal memoir into a single, readable volume. There are more weighty, academic treatments, more wonky, strategic analyses and gritty combat histories, but it is tempting to say that if you had to recommend just one book on Afghanistan then Farewell Kabul should be it.
Task Force Helmand was officially handed over to Nato command at a ceremony in March 2014. Photo: Corporal Andrew Morris
I was lucky enough to be sitting near Lamb at that same charity dinner – fresh from my own tour of Helmand and no doubt insufferable with bravado – and it was obvious then that not only did she have the best war stories of anyone at the table, more importantly she had an understanding of the country we could only have dreamed of.
Plenty of high-adrenalin moments pepper this book, but it is the background colour and impressive access that really bring it to life. Big names drop nearly as frequently as the bombs, as Lamb recounts not just fleeting conversations but lengthy interviews with a Who’s Who of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past three decades. She reveals a touching intimacy with Hamid Karzai, who she presents as a more complex and perhaps more sympathetic figure than the two-dimensional hero-turned-corrupt-villain of the stereotype here and in the United States.
Lamb is familiar not just with Karzai but with a full cast of leading men (and it always is men). The warlords and the war criminals she encountered when she reported on Afghanistan during the Soviet War allow her to highlight – with a clarity which should shame the policymakers of the day – why so many of the decisions taken in the aftermath of the 2001 campaign to topple the Taliban were at best naively counterproductive and at worst downright destructive.
In one such example, Lamb asks John Reid, the Defence Secretary at the time of the British deployment into Helmand in 2006, how on earth the Army were expected to fight the Taliban in Helmand if nothing was being done about Pakistan over the border. Reid dismisses the question, whether out of ignorance Lamb leaves open, but there is a stark contrast: Lamb herself had just returned from Quetta, where Pakistani assistance to the Taliban was plain for all to see; Reid, we are told, had just failed to locate Afghanistan on a globe.
'Stylish if simplistic': a still from Adam Curtis's film Bitter Lake, set in Afghanistan. Photo: Handout
The “West’s” failure to grasp the problem of Pakistan is perhaps the dominant strategic theme of the book. Like Adam Curtis’s stylish if simplistic film Bitter Lake, the absurdity of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan while ostensibly allied with Pakistan comes across with cold clarity. The way in which the well-intentioned but underprepared and ill-equipped Nato allies were played by Afghans and Pakistanis alike (not to mention Saudi Arabia and Iran behind the scenes) would almost be funny if it wasn’t so deadly serious and cripplingly expensive, most of all for the Afghans themselves. There is black humour: the dodgy commercial flights into Kabul, the Energy Minister nicknamed “the Minister of Darkness” because there’s no power, the absurd interior décor choices of the dollar-enriched warlords. But too often the stories Lamb encounters are just too sad or absurd to amuse: the inspirational female poets of Herat hounded and terrorised, the enterprising Kabulis so full of hope in 2001, slowly worn down and now fearful, and always zooming back and forward overhead, flying in and flying out, the generals and politicians who come across as staggeringly disconnected from the reality on the ground.
Lamb’s book ends with the well-choreographed but unavoidably ignominious departure from Helmand and her own, tearful flight out of Kabul. The sadness is understandable and justified. This is not a hopeful book, but it is better for its frankness. We should share Lamb’s frustration and sadness, and we should hope, as she does, that the world does not now forget Afghanistan, again.
Patrick Hennessey is the author of Kandak: Fighting with Afghans
640pp, William Collins, £20 (RRP £25, ebook £12.34). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk