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Afghan Lessons

Culture, Diplomacy, and Counterinsurgency

translated by Angela Arnone. Fernando Gentilini

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

Front Cover

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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword

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pp. ix-x

...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...

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Preface

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pp. xi-xiii

...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 close they could have been part of the landscape. I inhaled a scent of apricots like that of my childhood memories, but the balsam, poplar, and sulfur sand were new to me. I saw men dressed like figures in a Nativity tableau...

Map

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pp. xiv-xv

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How I Ended Up in Afghanistan: February-July 2008

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pp. 1-4

...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...

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Signals: 1968, 1979, 2001, 2007

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pp. 5-7

...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...

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Dubai, Terminal 2: July 13, 2008

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pp. 8-12

...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...

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Kabul

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pp. 13-17

...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...

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A Small Travel Library, I

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pp. 18-22

...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...

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The First Steps

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pp. 23-29

...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...

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"What? They've Surrounded Kabul?"

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pp. 30-32

...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...

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Winning

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pp. 33-35

...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...

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The Neo-Taliban

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pp. 36-40

...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...

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A Word of Advice From a Princess

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pp. 41-43

...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...

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"The Insubstantial State"

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pp. 44-48

...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...

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Arg

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pp. 49-52

...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...

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Civilian Casualties, I

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pp. 53-57

...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...

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What There Was, What There Should Have Been

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pp. 58-61

...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...

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To Coordinate—or To Be Coordinated

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pp. 62-68

...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...

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A Small Travel Library, II

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pp. 69-71

...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...

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ISAF

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pp. 72-77

...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...

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Khyber: 1842, 1878, 1919, 1928

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pp. 78-81

...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...

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Indian Holiday

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pp. 82-83

...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...

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Snow

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pp. 84-87

...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...

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Clear, Hold, and Build

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pp. 88-89

...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...

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Civilian Casualties, II

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pp. 90-92

...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...

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Obama and AF-PAK: March 29, 2009

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pp. 93-96

...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...

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Awkward Neighbors

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pp. 97-102

...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...

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A Small Travel Library, III

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pp. 103-106

...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...

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A Dream

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pp. 107-109

...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...

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Karzai

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pp. 110-113

...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...

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Bird's-Eye Views

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pp. 114-116

...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...

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Kandahar

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pp. 117-120

...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...

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Coin—the Counterinsurgency Manual

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pp. 121-125

...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...

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Civilian Casualties, III

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pp. 126-127

...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...

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Shia Family Law

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pp. 128-130

...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...

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Women

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pp. 131-137

...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...

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A Small Travel Library, IV

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pp. 138-140

...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...

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Death in August

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pp. 141-144

...assistant, Danielle, and my bodyguards, no one had access to my daily schedule, which listed meetings and engagements outside the base. Anyone in the office who had to know about a specific event was informed at the last moment. Then, if I were eating out at a restaurant for the evening, I’d have several reservations made and never in my name. I’d decide with my detail where...

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The Presidential Elections

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pp. 145-149

...international grapevine. All of us mentioned it, in one way or another, in our pre-election briefing because it summed up the extent of the difficulties and bizarre conditions surrounding the August 20, 2009, elections and their organization. As if choosing a president from among forty-four presidential candidates, and four hundred and twenty provincial councilors...

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A Way to Reconciliation

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pp. 150-152

...Karzai continued to be disoriented by the West. He’d emerged miraculously victorious from the elections, despite the jungle of gerrymandering and media chaos that had generated the most fraudulent elections of all time. Moreover, he still perceived signals from his American allies...

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The Future of AF-PAK

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pp. 153-157

...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...

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Leaving Kabul: February 2010

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pp. 158-160

...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...

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Epilogue

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pp. 161-164

...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.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...

Bibliography

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pp. 165-168

Index

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pp. 169-176

Back Cover

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p. 192-192


E-ISBN-13: 9780815724247
E-ISBN-10: 0815724241
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815724230
Print-ISBN-10: 0815724233

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Brookings-SSPA Series on Public Administration

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Subject Headings

  • Afghanistan -- Description and travel.
  • Afghan War, 2001-.
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- Afghanistan.
  • Gentilini, Fernando -- Travel -- Afghanistan.
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