Farewell Kabul Book Review
Want to win my copy of Christina Lamb’s Farewell Kabul? Shout me on social media & I’ll send it to you with a favourite passage marked for your enjoyment.
I have a bit of a strange interest.
If you look at my bookshelf (or Kindle), you’ll see I’ve read a ton about the Navy SEALs, terrorism, and conflict in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Part of it is a business fascination with the fine-tuned mechanisms of special operations forces, but the other part seeks to understand these wars and situations abroad as a citizen of the world.
I happened to be browsing at the bookstore last year when the cover for Farewell Kabul immediately caught my eye. Written by Christina Lamb, co-author of I Am Malala and Sunday Times foreign correspondent, it chronicles her 27 years as a journalist in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a journalist by training, I was eager to crack open the cover and hear the perspective of someone that hasn’t graduated BUD/s. (No offence, guys, I need a little diversity).
I had seriously considered becoming a foreign correspondent when I graduated journalism school, but my path somehow led to marketing communications instead. I despise what some people mistakenly call journalism – the sharky or borderline unethical things done in the hopes of dashing into the spotlight or boosting ratings. Perhaps I don’t have the stomach for it, but I believe it just gives a bad rep to the profession and is not at all about telling a balanced story.
This is one of the reasons why I’ve always admired Lamb and her work. Her approach, right down to her narrative style, is balanced, steady, and calm and has that dash of “wtf” timed impeccably. Farewell Kabul provides entry into her vast travels and experiences embedding with US and British troops (as well as spending time with locals and tribal leaders). I really enjoyed the British perspective about the wars, particularly as a Canadian reader (again, need for diversity). News coverage is too dominated by sexy stories about stealthy special teams or body counts. I also connected very much with Lamb’s perspective as a female journalist, and the challenges and risks she faced as a “gringa” (as my mum would say in Spanish – the blonde white lady).
There were two things that really stood out to me from this 600-page beast – the chronic ineffectiveness of disregarding host cultures and the chronic denial of assuming everyone is truthful.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
As a total outsider to the war (I don’t know anyone serving, nor do I have direct exposure to that world), I was really surprised to learn about the similarities to business. About the layers of management and how seemingly impossible it can be to manage up and drive change to policy/procedure. One of the things that becomes evident is that no participating country quite knows what they are doing because they rarely understand the cultural intersection between foreign forces and locals. This has nothing to do with the complexities of the theater of war in the sense of combat strategy, rather, it’s about a disconnect between what gets mandated down to ground forces versus the realities of what they asses in order to operate effectively.
From the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1842 to the conflicts of today, Lamb masterfully outlines how troops get sent in and end up struggling with their hierarchy rather than with the enemy. Sharing the embedded perspective provides rich examples of how hard it is to pass knowledge up, and how easy it is to get shut down. She tells one story about how a mission that was intended to “win the hearts and minds” of the locals by way of on-ground support from soldiers, and how it ended up in major frustration instead. When the soldiers arrived, they were not permitted to do things like helping to fix a hospital machine, despite having the resources/capabilities to do so. It isn’t culture shock to realize that someone who is supposed to help you appears to be choosing not to – it’s common sense. Talk about breeding distrust and resentment, you might as well gift some of these soldiers a shiny box of flaming poo. I read one memoir about a SEAL team operator who spent his own money buying shoes and toys for kids in the Hindu Kush region, which totally makes sense after feeling the limitations Lamb describes so well.
Liar, Liar Pants on Fire
The second thing that really fascinated me was the chronic denial that Western governments seem to have about truthfulness and reliability. She recounts several stories where foreign troops are put in sticky situations because their leadership (military or political) seem unable to believe that their contacts are capable of lying or playing both sides. Take for example the tendency for tribal leaders to take payment from various sides – from foreign governments, neighbouring intelligence services, terrorist groups and warlords. All of them. There’s also the tendency for such tribal leaders to file false reports of terrorist activity in order to bring the hammer down on their rivals instead of actual terrorists. Lamb left me shaking my head in disbelief. It’s like a kid denying they were in the cookie jar, despite crumbs on their shirt. Ultimately, this deceit relates to the cultural intersection point noted above – how can we not adapt to realize that people don’t adhere to the same playbook? (This concept is ever so prominent in the Navy SEAL autobiographies as they recount frustration combating an enemy that doesn’t have the same rules of engagement to adhere to).
All Access Palace
One of the really neat things about Lamb’s book is the content about Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan from 2004-2014. Her friendship with Karzai grants a truly behind the scenes view into the political show of the times, and the weird bubble he lived in. It is truly bizarre and the depiction of him makes me think of a figurehead CEO unnaturally concerned with media clippings about himself. This view completes it for me as Lamb weaves it all together – the President, the foreign warriors, the tribal fighters, the villagers, and the journalist.
Which ones walk into a bar?
This quote at the start of a chapter really says it all:
British General to Afghan tribal chief during the 1842 Anglo-Afghan war (or Russian General in 1979, or American General in 2001, or Canadian General): “Why are you laughing?”
Tribal chief: “Because I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops here. What I don’t understand is how you plan to get them out.”