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Afghan Lessons

Afghan Lessons: Culture, Diplomacy, and Counterinsurgency

Translated by Angela Arnone
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Afghan Lessons
    Book Description:

    Fernando Gentilini served nearly two years as the civilian representative of NATO in Afghanistan, running a counterinsurgency campaign in the wartorn nation.Afghan Lessonsis the fascinating story of his mission, a firsthand view of Afghanistan through a kaleidoscope. He explores Afghan history, literature, tradition, and culture to understand some of the most basic questions of Western involvement: What is the purpose? What does an international presence mean, and how can it help?

    Highlights from Afghan Lessons

    "This is a book about different worlds, different realities. The reality of everyday life in an unreal world. People that need to be looked after, jobs that need to be done, a country that needs to be restored, all from within the necessary confines of an armed camp. And this in the middle of another reality, which we do not understand, full of things forgotten under decades of war. The keys to this reality lie in the past, perhaps lost." -from the Foreword by Robert Cooper

    "To tempt me to explore their country, the Afghans kept repeating that there were three different Afghanistans: 'The first is the one you Westerners imagine; another coincides with the city of Kabul; the third is the country of remote provinces, far away from the cities, and of the three, this is the only real Afghanistan.'"

    "'There can be no development without security and no security without development.' ... Everyone said it over and over again, both the civilians and the military, but depending on whether it was said by the former or the latter, the emphasis was placed on the first or second part of the slogan. In all honesty this seemingly obvious concept concealed two contrasting ways of seeing things."

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2424-7
    Subjects: Political Science, Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Robert Cooper

    This is a book about different worlds, different realities. The reality of everyday life in an unreal world. People that need to be looked after, jobs that need to be done, a country that needs to be restored, all from within the necessary confines of an armed camp. And this in the middle of another reality, which we do not understand, full of things forgotten under decades of war. The keys to this reality lie in the past, perhaps lost.

    Footfalls echo in the memory

    Down the passage which we did not take

    Towards the door we never opened


    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
    (pp. 1-4)

    I was appointed NATO’s senior civilian representative for Afghanistan in early May 2008. It was sheer chance really, a combination of events. With the fall of the Prodi administration in February, I had to look for another job after two years as deputy diplomatic adviser to the prime minister. At the same time, NATO’s secretary general was looking for a new personal representative in Kabul, and the Italian Foreign Ministry had decided to put forward one of its diplomats for the position, so that secured me a place on the list of candidates. I was keen; I was looking for...

  7. TWO SIGNALS 1968, 1979, 2001, 2007
    (pp. 5-7)

    For years I’d been sure that sooner or later I’d end up in Afghanistan. Traveling as a tourist, on business, or just by chance. I don’t remember the exact moment when this conviction took shape or why it did, but I felt it was there and that I wouldn’t have to do very much to make it happen. At some point, fate would pack me off to Kabul.

    I’d heard the nameAfghanistanfor the first time when I was six, in the kitchen of my paternal grandparents. Uncle Roberto, my father’s younger brother, was back from a trip to...

    (pp. 8-12)

    Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 2 is a remote outpost. A waiting room for the hopeless, the final frontier before the journey into the ailing heart of Asia. Post-9/11 Afghanistan starts here, in this gloomy pavilion without signage or billboards, just a few miles from Terminal 3’s marble and crystal at the service of the Emirates airline. Covering the short distance between the two buildings is like a journey from day into night, from sterile organization to pollution and disease.

    I left behind spas, sushi bars, jewelry stores, Ferraris displayed in front of Gucci or Hermes boutiques, and entered a strange...

    (pp. 13-17)

    The landing in Kabul was just as I had imagined. First the descent over barren ocher mountains, their true scale emerging as the aircraft went down to sea level. Then the wretched mud huts of the suburbs and chaotic containers around the airport. In the distance, in a valley of yellowish sand, a helicopter cemetery, rusted tanks, and remnants of war that might have been an open-air museum illustrating the last thirty years of Afghan history.

    An American diplomat, Ken, who had worked with my Dutch predecessor, Maurits Jochems, was waiting on the tarmac. He was escorted by eight members...

    (pp. 18-22)

    Books are essential to understanding a country, learning its history, discovering the thoughts of those who came before us. In modern Afghanistan, books are even more indispensable because the conflict is a barrier to many places, and the destruction of the last thirty years has left little of what was once there.

    I arranged my little travel library in the bedroom of my new home, a dozen or so volumes, all I’d been able to fit into my suitcase and carry-on bag. But I was in no doubt that this would be another of those occasions when I would see...

    (pp. 23-29)

    Even in my early days in Kabul I realized how urgent it was to find answers to a series of basic questions. What was the purpose of this international mission? How long would it take to complete? Was it right to stay in Afghanistan? And for how long?

    Clearly, this was also why I’d accepted the assignment: to be involved in one of the major international policy issues of our time, and perhaps even to contribute to the general discussion on how to resolve it. I already knew it would be no mean feat to find answers to these questions....

    (pp. 30-32)

    When you’re working in crisis situations you need to understand intuitively and quickly who’s telling the truth. Better still, you need to figure out which people around you know what they’re talking about.

    That may sound a little over the top, I know, but it’s precisely in the most serious situations that you need to weigh your words. Yet you hear all kinds of nonsense, even from those who are supposedly paid to think carefully before opening their mouths: local ministers and politicians, ambassadors and generals, international officials, spies, journalists, humanitarian workers.

    In August 2008, not long after I’d arrived...

    (pp. 33-35)

    I was having trouble forming an objective opinion on how the military campaign was proceeding generally, and not just because any military command in the world tends to issue the most reassuring reading possible of how things are on the ground. In this case, military operations also were taking place hundreds of kilometers from Kabul, in the south and east of the country. The news or reports coming from American, British, and Canadian outposts didn’t always lend themselves to unequivocal readings. For instance, if no international forces were in a remote district, no clashes or incidents would be reported, but...

    (pp. 36-40)

    For those of us in Kabul, the Taliban were virtual. We talked about them incessantly: we wondered about their motives and speculated on their organization and command structures. But because we couldn’t see them, the only proof of their existence was represented by stylized flames on the morning briefing slides, indicating the location of firefights.

    For the rest, we knew little or at least we had no certainties. The impression was that the Taliban were a kind of secret society—a sort of Khmer Rouge, someone had said—and that’s why it was difficult to learn more about the leaders...

    (pp. 41-43)

    Soraya gave me lots of advice before I left Rome. Her mother, Princess India, was the daughter of King Amanullah of Afghanistan, who had wrested independence from the British in 1919 but was forced into exile in Italy in 1929, following a fundamentalist revolt.

    Soraya was born in Rome, still lives there, and is more Italian than Afghan, but her relationship with Afghanistan had again intensified after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

    She’s a lovely, loquacious lady, and as sparkling as her eyes suggest, but she doesn’t mince words. When she heard the news that I was leaving...

    (pp. 44-48)

    In my first two months I went to meet as many Afghans as I could, and I also tried to establish contacts outside official spheres. I’d realized that if I relied on formal relationships I wouldn’t get very far, but also that the Pashtun saying that you need to pay seven visits to someone before you can start talking seriously to them is more than just a saying: it’s a fundamental social rule without exceptions. So I subjected my detail to a veritable tour de force as I went on lightning visits to members of the government and other institutional...

    (pp. 49-52)

    Arg was the presidential palace. It was orderly, quiet, graced with gardens and flower beds, located just a few hundred meters from the city center: yet it seemed light years away.

    It looked like heaven and had an esoteric atmosphere that had nothing to do with the capital’s jumble of crooked buildings and dusty streets. The palace stood in the diplomatic district, close to ISAF headquarters and the American, Italian, Indian, and Spanish embassies. Seen from the outside it gave the impression of a timeless place, unchanging and immune to conflict.

    Ample, perfectly paved avenues, lined with red rose bushes...

    (pp. 53-57)

    I started to get an idea of how things really stood one morning in late August.

    I was with Kai Eide, the UN representative, and General David McKiernan. Every other Thursday, the three of us had breakfast together, each taking turns to host. That day we were in Palace 7, Kai’s residence, which was a house once owned by the royal family, located near the British and Canadian embassies.

    These breakfasts for three were a time when we could talk freely about anything and try to agree on what to do before starting wider consultations. If Kai and the general...

    (pp. 58-61)

    Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was always very professional. Not only was he always willing to meet whenever I asked (his ministry was in a district near the president’s palace, just five minutes from my office), but I also had the pleasure of receiving frequent invitations to his home for lunch. Wardak’s cook prepared dishes that couldn’t be had in any other place.

    Afghan cuisine isn’t as sophisticated as that of Iran, nor is it as varied as that of India, but most people enjoy it because the dishes are simple, relying on quality ingredients like pulses, vegetables, spices, and...

    (pp. 62-68)

    In September and October I ventured out of Kabul so I could get an idea of how things were going in the provinces. By November winter would have set in, and once the weather turned bad, it would be difficult to travel.

    To tempt me to explore their country, the Afghans kept repeating that there were three different Afghanistans: “The first is the one you Westerners imagine; another coincides with the city of Kabul; the third is the country of remote provinces, far away from the cities, and of the three, this is the only real Afghanistan.”

    Meanwhile I went...

    (pp. 69-71)

    In a couple of months I’d finished reading everything I’d brought from Italy. I read at night because it was so noisy I couldn’t get much sleep. My residence was at the center of the base, opposite the command building, and not a night passed without clattering convoys coming and going through the gate, with helicopters overhead, and soldiers who stayed up late in the Milano canteen garden, just under my bedroom window.

    In August we’d also had a couple of night alarms because of insurgent rocket attacks. Not to mention the pestiferous cats who began their own wars at...

    (pp. 72-77)

    ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) headquarters were located in an old military club belonging to the Ministry of Defense. It was home to about 2,000 soldiers, and it was so packed that I sometimes thought it resembled those weird Japanese day hotels where guests can rest in cells that form a sort of hive and are so small you can’t even lie down flat.

    There were times, especially in winter, when a strange influenza bug went around, causing high fever and fits of vomiting. The fact that it spread so quickly was certainly due to the overcrowded dormitories and canteens,...

  23. EIGHTEEN KHYBER 1842, 1878, 1919, 1928
    (pp. 78-81)

    The name of the Khyber is as legendary as those of the River Oxus, Samarkand, Bukhara, Herat, Chitral. The word alone evokes centuries of Afghan history and the epic feats that have taken place in this part of the world. I still remember the excitement of that late November morning, unbelievably hot for the season, when I first saw the Khyber Pass from the helicopter as I accompanied the secretary general of NATO.

    He wanted to visit the border post at the foot of the pass, where the Afghan and Pakistani military had begun their joint control of respective sides...

    (pp. 82-83)

    Without realizing it, people get used to everything, even the most absurd situations. It wasn’t until I went to India that I grasped what kind of life I was leading in Kabul and how little personal freedom I had left. NATO is very generous with its civilian staff in Kabul and schedules rest periods out of the country every three months. Unlike my co-workers, however, for one reason or another I hadn’t been able to pull the plug for six months. Seemingly out of the blue, I found myself walking around Connaught Circus in New Delhi, where Francesca and I...

    (pp. 84-87)

    Toward the end of January, on an evening like any other, I’d promised I’d go out to dinner with Isabella, the friend of mutual friends in Brussels. She was an Italian cooperation volunteer who’d arrived in Kabul a few weeks before. I arranged to pick her up at nine o’clock in the evening, outside the Italian embassy gates, but when I arrived there was no sign of her.

    This annoyed me: I didn’t want to be hanging around the street with the escort detail. We’d been hearing all sorts of things for days now, and I didn’t want the guys...

    (pp. 88-89)

    Every other Thursday I’d have breakfast with Chris Alexander, UN representative Kai Eide’s deputy, and Admiral Matthieu Borsboom, head of the ISAF mission reconstruction project. Each time we’d get together with a group of experts who differed depending on their fields of expertise, with the intention of getting civilians and military to work together.

    At every meeting we repeated the phrase “There can be no development without security and no security without development” with the precise therapeutic function of reconciling what was irreconcilable. Everyone said it over and over again, both the civilians and the military, but depending on whether...

    (pp. 90-92)

    With each year’s first snowfall, the insurgents would head back toward Pakistan and the conflict became less intense. In the winter of 2008–09, however, things weren’t going that way, and many doubted that the old concept of seasonal conflict could be applied.

    Despite the bad weather, there continued to be numerous insurgent actions, especially with explosives, and the same was true for international forces operations, above all near the ring road. Following Shindand, there were no further high-profile civilian casualty cases attributable to international troops.

    ISAF and the coalition countries were doing everything they possibly could to reduce risks,...

    (pp. 93-96)

    Throughout that winter there were many comings and goings involving Washington: Pentagon military, academics, think tank experts, State Department officials. ISAF mission headquarters were literally besieged, and the logistics people had to jump through hoops to find accommodation and make appointments for everyone.

    The reason was that once Obama had been elected, he immediately got to work to define his own strategy for Afghanistan, so the powerful American machine was immediately activated to provide him and his staff all the information they needed. This is the great thing about Americans: they have infinite means. Their system works frantically and, once...

    (pp. 97-102)

    I was in Gazar Gah, on the outskirts of Herat, visiting the tomb of the eleventh-century Sufi poet Khoja Abdullah Ansari when I saw the gatekeeper approach, dragging a boy behind him to interpret.

    He wanted to know who I was and what I was doing in one of Afghanistan’s most sacred places. He listened to my replies; then he informed me that when Ansari was alive, he would come to compose his verses in this very place, every day as the sun set. “He’d always arrive from there,” he said, pointing to a mound of sun-parched earth, “because his...

    (pp. 103-106)

    The first time I heard Majrouh mentioned, I didn’t know who he was. It happened one evening when I was having dinner in the garden of some of the Italian volunteers. They represented the usual free-for-all of expats working with NGOs, journalists, diplomats, and people just passing through. We were in the Shahr-e Naw district, in the center of Kabul, but we could have been anywhere in the world—Africa, Latin America, South East Asia—because on these occasions you always eat the same things, do the same things, and everyone’s dressed and behaving in much the same way.


    (pp. 107-109)

    One evening, during a reception hosted by the Canadian ambassador, I was introduced to a young Afghan actress. She was a very beautiful girl, with black eyes and hair, and Indian features, dressed in jeans, sandals, and a silk blouse. I hadn’t understood if she worked in movies or television, but I heard her talking about a film festival to be held in Kabul in the near future.

    “That’s nice,” I said, pleased. “So can I hope for an invitation?”

    “Of course,” said the man with her, a young director dressed like a rapper.

    We started talking about European movies...

    (pp. 110-113)

    Hamid Karzai is an extraordinary politician in the literal sense. His manner, his dialectic skill, his wit, his command of the English language had no equal on the Afghan scene and it made him a unique character. He had an answer to everything and you couldn’t catch him off guard. Even when he wasn’t telling the whole truth, his aplomb was impeccable as he tried to make you believe some total nonsense.

    At the time when the international press was accusing his brother, Wali Karzai, of trafficking, a member of parliament from an EU state asked him how the corruption...

    (pp. 114-116)

    The thing I liked best of all was being up in a helicopter. Not for the actual flight, which often was “tactical” and thus turned my stomach, but because the best way to observe Afghanistan was by flying over it.

    There was no lack of opportunities, especially in the summer. As the census of projects implemented by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams was ongoing, I visited some of the provinces at least two or three times a month, and the helicopter was quicker and safer than overland travel. And often, given the distance, there was no other choice.

    Flying in helicopters...

    (pp. 117-120)

    A stronghold of sorts, set in sands . . . a kind of oasis . . . an expanse of clay houses scorched by the sun and surrounded by high walls. The origins of this unique town, unavoidable for anyone traveling from Iran to the Indian subcontinent, are lost in the mists of time. There are so many theories about its foundation that you’re free to believe whichever you like best. Books will tell you it is over three thousand years old and that its name derives from the Indian “Gandhara,” but I preferred to believe that Alexander the Great...

    (pp. 121-125)

    General Stanley McChrystal’s arrival in Kabul was preceded by his reputation.

    Once again I’d been brought up to speed by Sarah Chayes, the American writer enamored of Kandahar, a woman who could get anyone in Washington to listen to her, from the Pentagon to the State Department and even Congress.

    “You see, Fernando,” she told me one day, when she’d just got back from the States, “if you walk into a room and McChrystal’s in there, you know it immediately, even if he isn’t speaking. He’s a born leader, one who can move mountains and make lots of things happen....

    (pp. 126-127)

    I was halfway through my second summer in Afghanistan, and controversy over civilian casualties had calmed down over recent months. There were a number of reasons for this. The first was because President Karzai seemed to be thinking twice before lobbing criticism at the Americans and their international allies in the pre-election climate. And second, because the issue was more than ever a top priority for the international mission, as McChrystal’s report had made abundantly clear. Although most civilian casualties continued to be caused by the insurgents, the concept that the highest possible standards were to be expected from ISAF...

    (pp. 128-130)

    On the morning of August 20, 2009, while everyone was following how the elections were going, I visited Sima Samar in her office.

    Sima Samar is a prominent figure in Afghan civil society. In 2002, during the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, she took refuge in Pakistan and then returned to take up office as deputy chair and minister of women’s affairs in the interim administration led by Karzai. Sima was considered a sort of Afghan Salman Rushdie by the more conservative circles because of her positions on defense of human rights and of women’s rights in particular. In this respect,...

    (pp. 131-137)

    In Kabul, female figures are just starting to populate the urban landscape. It’s early days yet, so the streets, market, airport, stores, ministries, bus stops, or taxi ranks are still predominantly male places, but every now and then you’ll see women walking in pairs on the sidewalks, often a mother and daughter, or women going to work, or carrying their shopping home.

    Women employees in the ministries dress in a Western style with skirts, high-heeled shoes, and a veil that is little more than symbolic as it doesn’t even cover all their hair. Teachers and nurses prefer to wear traditional...

    (pp. 138-140)

    No other country honors its poets like Afghanistan: they are respected, esteemed, venerated, and their graves often become holy places.

    In a country where illiteracy is the norm, especially outside the big cities, knowledge is passed down through the verses of poets. Every adult male must learn as many as he can by heart and keep them stored in his mental library, using them to explain life’s small mysteries to himself and to others. This would be impossible with prose because it is harder to remember; the rhyme and cadence of the poem makes memorization a much easier exercise.


    (pp. 141-144)

    After a group of insurgents had occupied the Ministry of Finance for a few hours, in February 2009, blowing them-selves up when government staff arrived, we knew for sure that the threat of suicide bombers in Kabul was now a reality. Intelligence services and embassies flooded our mobile phones daily with security warnings, indicating movements of Toyotas full of explosives, suspicious trucks, and shady characters in reconnaissance near sensitive targets.

    The ISAF headquarters district was at especially high risk, because it was just a stone’s throw from the presidential palace and the U.S. embassy. A while earlier we’d embarked on...

    (pp. 145-149)

    I was talking to a visibly embarrassed official of the central elections committee, who was telling me that at that point he wasn’t able to prepare the material I’d asked for and which I needed for my briefing with Western journalists scheduled for the next day. The electoral commission was just outside the residential area, toward the airport, and comprised offices and hangar-type pavilions where the registration process was scrutinized and preparations for counting ballots were under way. The Afghan staff was young and skilled, thanks to the experience gained during the presidential election in 2004 and the parliamentary election...

    (pp. 150-152)

    The Soviets had replaced President Karmal with Mohammed Najibullah in 1986 and he’d stayed in place, even after the retreat of the Red Army, for as long as Moscow had given him the money needed to sustain the regime. When it became clear that there was nothing further to be done and the mujahedin were about to take power, the Russians abandoned him to his fate. When Massoud and Dostum captured Kabul, in April 1992, Najibullah took refuge in the United Nations offices after he’d tried unsuccessfully to leave the city. There he stayed until the arrival of the Taliban,...

    (pp. 153-157)

    Reasoning about a reconciliation with the Taliban meant imagining a future Afghanistan, thinking of scenarios somewhat less unflinching than those I’d witnessed directly. Now it was almost time for me to be on my way and that is usually a time for taking stock, but in a situation as engrossing as Afghanistan, with its continuing evolution, it was going to be a time for making predictions.

    What would happen? What events would mark the coming years? Would fighting continue or would common sense eventually prevail? If so, how long would it take?

    There were many—endless—questions, because each one...

    (pp. 158-160)

    I was glad to be leaving, but equally, I would have stayed. All in all, twenty months had been too long and not long enough. While the presidential elections and the stalemate that followed had highlighted the limits of the Afghan institutions, they had also made it clear that new energies were needed, even on the international front. “New phase, new faces,” say the English in these cases.

    In just a matter of weeks, in February and March 2010, Kai Eide, Ettore Sequi, and I were replaced by Staffan de Mistura, Vygaudas Ušackas, and Mark Sedwill, respectively heading the United...

    (pp. 161-164)

    I’ve just finished rereading everything and I’m happy. I wrote with passion and honesty. I wrote for myself, but also in the hope that some small lessons might be drawn from this unique personal experience. I would have liked to dedicate more space to the Afghans and their country and culture, but it was inevitable, in the end, that I would also write about the international mission. Post-9/11 Afghanistan has been occupied by a formidable foreign legion, and it would have been hypocritical to ignore that fact.

    When I first returned to Europe, I’d become upset by news from Kabul,...

    (pp. 165-168)
  47. INDEX
    (pp. 169-176)
  48. Back Matter
    (pp. 177-177)