Culture, Diplomacy, and Counterinsurgency
Publication Year: 2013
Fernando Gentilini served nearly two years as the civilian representative of NATO in Afghanistan, running a counterinsurgency campaign in the wartorn nation. Afghan Lessons is 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."
Published by: Brookings Institution Press
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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote
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Table of Contents
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...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 ...
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Afghanistan don’t exist anywhere else in the world. I saw sunsets that could have come from Photoshop, suns that weren’t red, moons that weren’t yellow, skies of the clearest blue. But, above all, I saw stars so I inhaled a scent of apricots like that of my childhood memories, but I saw men dressed like figures in a Nativity tableau, and women in ...
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How I Ended Up in Afghanistan: February-July 2008
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...sentative for Afghanistan in early May 2008. It was sheer chance really, a combination of events. With the fall of the Prodi administration in Feb-ruary, 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 ...
Signals: 1968, 1979, 2001, 2007
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...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 name Afghanistan for the first time when I was six, in the ...
Dubai, Terminal 2: July 13, 2008
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...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 ...
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...ined. 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 dis-tance, in a valley of yellowish sand, a helicopter cemetery, rusted tanks, and remnants of war that might have been an open-air museum illustrat-...
A Small Travel Library, I
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...try, 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 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 ...
The First Steps
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...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 com-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 ...
"What? They've Surrounded Kabul?"
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...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 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 ...
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...ion 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 ...
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...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 For the rest, we knew little or at least we had no certainties. The ...
A Word of Advice From a Princess
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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 Insubstantial State"
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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 ...
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...quiet, graced with gardens and flower beds, located just a few hundred 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 ...
Civilian Casualties, I
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I was with Kai Eide, the UN representative, and General David McKier-nan. 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 These breakfasts for three were a time when we could talk freely about ...
What There Was, What There Should Have Been
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...always very professional. Not only was he always willing to meet when-ever 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 fre-quent invitations to his home for lunch. Wardak’s cook prepared dishes Afghan cuisine isn’t as sophisticated as that of Iran, nor is it as varied ...
To Coordinate—or To Be Coordinated
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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, To tempt me to explore their country, the Afghans kept repeating that there were three different Afghanistans: “The first is the one you West-erners imagine; another coincides with the city of Kabul; the third is the ...
A Small Travel Library, II
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...thing 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 ...
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...headquarters were located in an old military club belonging to the Minis-try 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 There were times, especially in winter, when a strange influenza bug ...
Khyber: 1842, 1878, 1919, 1928
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...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 ...
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...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 lit-tle 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 ...
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...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 This annoyed me: I didn’t want to be hanging around the street with ...
Clear, Hold, and Build
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Chris Alexander, UN representative Kai Eide’s deputy, and Admiral Mat-thieu 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 At every meeting we repeated the phrase “There can be no develop-...
Civilian Casualties, II
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...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 interna-...
Obama and AF-PAK: March 29, 2009
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...comings and goings involving Washington: Pentagon military, academics, think tank experts, State Department officials. ISAF mission headquar-ters were literally besieged, and the logistics people had to jump through The reason was that once Obama had been elected, he immediately got to work to define his own strategy for Afghanistan, so the powerful ...
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...ing 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 Afghan-istan’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 ...
A Small Travel Library, III
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...didn’t know who he was. It happened one evening when I was having din-ner 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—...
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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 festi-“That’s nice,” I said, pleased. “So can I hope for an invitation?”...
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...in the literal sense. His manner, his dialectic skill, his wit, his com-mand 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 ...
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...helicopter. Not for the actual flight, which often was “tactical” and thus turned my stomach, but because the best way to observe Afghanistan was 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 ...
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...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 ...
Coin—the Counterinsurgency Manual
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Once again I’d been brought up to speed by Sarah Chayes, the Ameri-can writer enamored of Kandahar, a woman who could get anyone in Washington to listen to her, from the Pentagon to the State Department “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 ...
Civilian Casualties, III
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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 ...
Shia Family Law
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...everyone was following how the elections were going, I visited Sima Sima Samar is a prominent figure in Afghan civil society. In 2002, dur-ing 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 ...
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...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, Women employees in the ministries dress in a Western style with ...
A Small Travel Library, IV
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Afghanistan: they are respected, esteemed, venerated, and their graves In a country where illiteracy is the norm, especially outside the big cit-ies, 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 ...
Death in August
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Ministry of Finance for a few hours, in February 2009, blowing themselves 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 ...
The Presidential Elections
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...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 elec-toral commission was just outside the residential area, toward the airport, and comprised offices and hangar-type pavilions where the registration ...
A Way to Reconciliation
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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 Rus-sians abandoned him to his fate. When Massoud and Dostum captured ...
The Future of AF-PAK
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...iban meant imagining a future Afghanistan, thinking of scenarios some-what 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 evolu-Would fighting continue or would common sense eventually prevail? If ...
Leaving Kabul: February 2010
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...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. In just a matter of weeks, in February and March 2010, Kai Eide, ...
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...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 ...
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Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2013
Series Title: Brookings-SSPA Series on Public Administration