Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, by Christina Lamb

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In this impressive book, British journalist Christina Lamb surveys the last fifteen years of Middle Eastern politics, with a particular focus on Afghanistan. Her intimate experience of the countries she describes gives Farewell Kabul an added salience.

Christina Lamb is a British journalist who has been covering the Middle East since the late 1980s. Her journey began when she interviewed Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto. After that initial interview in 1987, Bhutto invited Lamb to her wedding. This invitation was the start of a long fascination with the Middle East, in particular Afghanistan. Her reporting from the region would lead to interviews with many key figures, including future Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two would even develop a friendship.

Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World is a mixture of journalism, memoir and history. As Lamb herself candidly notes, journalists are meant to be impartial, but this is easier said than done, especially when reporting on such emotional circumstances as war, poverty, assassination and conflict. The book covers the period from 2001 to 2014, across key “war on terror” countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The point of departure for Lamb’s narrative is her own personal experiences of the war. Each chapter hops from place to place, with the author as key witness, giving the text a gritty feeling of actually being there. If you like lots of small details - smells, tastes, noises - that help build up a more tangible picture of Afghanistan and its people, then this is the go-to book. 

The transformation of Afghanistan from a place of relative safety to one far more dangerous is the book’s main story arc. This happened through a mix of Western technological supremacy and cultural ignorance. The Americans (including partner countries) could run peerless military operations and bureaucratic machines, with targeted bombs, drones and management experts. However, there was a deep ignorance about Middle Eastern politics, history and culture. No efforts were made to learn about the countries that were being invaded. This disconnect created a culture of what Lamb calls “cloud cuckoo land”.  Young American technocrats sat in well fortified bunkers in Afghanistan, drawing up reconstruction plans that had no grip on the reality unfolding outside. In one section Lamb describes these specialists as “inanely grinning” like "members of a cult".

Another alarming aspect of the book is how it proves beyond reasonable doubt that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was always backing the Taliban. As billions of US dollars were poured into Pakistan, its own ISI was supporting the enemy. Ironically, if unwittingly, the US was funding both sides of the war. Osama bin Laden would eventually be found hiding out in Pakistan, a US ally.

Farewell Kabul is certainly an impressive achievement, written with much blood, sweat and tears. Its 600 pages never loses its momentum. Written by someone who was there, it answers a lot of questions about what was happening in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2001 - 2014 period. It is also an agonisingly tragic book, as it shows how so much was wasted, so many opportunities to improve matters frittered away. After so many billions spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation has deteriorated. For those seeking to learn what went so horribly wrong, Farewell Kabul is indispensable.

Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, by Christina Lamb. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780007256938 RRP: $34.99

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