This book tells the fascinating, harrowing, deeply personal and sometimes absurd personal testimonies of civilians who worked in Helmand’s frontline. Just thirty-seven individuals took on this task. All were deeply moved by what they saw; this book is the first-hand recollection of nine of them.
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Commentary on ‘Making Peace in War’
“Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what Britain’s Afghan War felt like for the British civilians building peace alongside the troops on the front line.” – Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. Former UK Ambassador to Afghanistan.
“Its value is that of the frank, open and sometimes emotional testimony of a series of witnesses to the hubris, miscomprehension and farce that has marked the international involvement in Afghanistan over the last decade.” – The Guardian
“This is a must read summer book for anyone interested in the reality of international development at the sharp end. Here are eight rough hewn accounts of life and work in southern Afghanistan over the last five years, which should give pause to decision makers who design top-down, concept-heavy and ultimately unrealistic interventions in the aftermath of conflict. The extraordinarily difficult and dangerous circumstances in which they worked is only in the background: front and centre is the bewildering gap between the western ideal of democratic accountability and centuries old Afghan traditional practice. Gripping.” – John Vereker
“An excellent and thought provoking read for anyone interested in what happens beyond the headlines.” – Adrian, via Amazon.co.uk.
“Making Peace in War offers a fascinating insight by civilian stabilisation advisors sent to Helmand Province to help built the essential strands of Governance, Justice, Health, & Education at District level. This involved being located in forward positions living in very austere conditions alongside front line troops. Looking outside the box in order to understand the multi layered tribal culture of the Pashtun was key to providing sustainable help to a Province torn apart by 30 years of war & ingrained with corruption at all levels. An incisive read offering a different perspective on the mire that is Afghanistan.” – Ian E Massey, via Amazon.co.uk
“This book is simply a must read for anyone who is interested in how a war torn country re-builds itself after war, or counter insurgency and how to beat it from a grass roots level. There are many books written on Helmand from a soldiers perspective and the bravery they perform. Not deriding from that heroism, this book is slightly different, it is about a different type of bravery. The people that write in this book are in the main civil servants, when they joined the service they never envisaged that they would be serving side by side with soldiers in Forward Operating Bases, helping deliver a stabilising effect to the local population and having a direct effect of the battle. The people that write this book are brave in their own right and have had a tremendous effect on the UK’s efforts in Helmand, this why most of them have honours and awards after their names. This book lays out a new way of war fighting, the way of the comprehensive approach where the soldier and the stabilisation adviser stand shoulder to shoulder. A must read. Well done and thank you for opening peoples eyes to the other battles that go on, that sometimes don’t make front page news.” – Black Dog (Amazon.co.uk reviewer)
From of the British Army Review (March 2016):
Everyone who served in Helmand has intense memories of their time there. You may remember fondly the comradery, the adventure and the excitement; perhaps you’re haunted by hearing the Last Post too many times, the horror of incoming fire, or the ghastly cuisine. We may try to shut those memories out, or spruce them up with nostalgia; our experiences in Helmand will probably remain the most intense of our lives, and the memories will stay with us until we die.
There have already been several memoirs from the campaign. There’s Task Force Helmand by Doug Beattie MC, which covers the early part of the campaign; Captain Patrick Hennessy’s Junior Officer’s Reading Club, linking personal experiences with a new theory of warfare; and Desert of Death by Leo Docherty, which takes a ‘boy’s own adventure’ view of it all. There are many others, and surely many more being written as you read this review.
All of these very military memoirs share a similar failing, which is that they’re very military. Why is that a problem, you might ask (after all, the chances are, if you’re reading this, you have a military background like me). The problem is that it means they all view the conflict in the same way. And let’s face it, the Helmand campaign wasn’t an unqualified military success. You need to step outside the military mind to understand it properly.
That’s one of the reasons I loved reading Making Peace in War. The book is a compilation of short accounts from peacemakers plying their trade in the midst of war – the personal stories of civilians in the frontline of Helmand. Don’t laugh: ‘Civilians in the frontline’, is not a joke. Yes, while we were yomping between the IEDs, sweating under 30Kg of kit, and chowing rations, most civilians were enjoying air conditioning in peaceful Lashkar Gah. But, over the seven years from early 2008 to the end of 2013, thirty-seven civilians really were forward-deployed. They were called ‘Stabilisation Advisors’.
Stabilisation Advisors, often shortened to ‘Stabads’, were a very odd bunch. As stated in Making Peace in War, they comprised diplomats, negotiators, international charity types, and even a granny. They were thinly spread, usually one to a district, based in the Forward Operating Base (FOB). There, they would lead negotiations with local Afghans, and try to get local development projects going, from roads to schools. The better stabads provided the ‘brains’ which turned military brawn into campaign effect. Making Peace in War tells us what they were thinking.
The book is often funny. We read how one Stabad googled a travel website before deploying to Helmand, to learn (wrongly) there was an airport near the village he was going to. Misunderstandings between Stabads, local Afghans and the British Military led to countless comic incidents. In one story, when Prince Harry was outed, the poor Stabad discovered he was the only Brit in the entire camp who didn’t know the Queen’s grandson was serving alongside them.
But there is a darker side, too. Just about every one of these civilians recounts what it was like to lose someone close – either an Afghan friend or a soldier whom they had come to know well. Many of them came under attack, and provide a uniquely civilian portrait of the ‘bowel-clearing wonder of incoming fire’. Tragedy features in every chapter.
There is a tremendous amount in Making Peace in War about the attempts to win hearts and minds in Helmand, and you really feel for the individuals wrestling with this – often torn, as they were, between unsympathetic ISAF officers and nasty Afghans. Never before have so many cups of Afghan tea been offered to so many to achieve so little – and this book explains why. But the book is not full of excuses. Several of the Stabads writing in Making Peace in War unfairly blame themselves (some cite their D+V, heat exhaustion, cowardice, ignorance – you name it) when things went wrong.
If there is a flaw in this book, it is the inconsistent quality of the writing. Most of the chapter authors write extremely well; some are exceptionally amusing, gripping or inspiring; but one or two write like the civil servants they are: bland and devoid of emotion. My advice is to skip those chapters – the rest of the book is full of truly excellent stuff.
Overall, Making Peace in War is a must-read for the military – if you read just one book on Afghanistan, read this, because it is probably the best first-hand account of the Helmand campaign.
The non-military chapter authors saw things differently to us, and their memories are different to ours. But that is precisely how Making Peace in War helps us make sense of our own memories; this book explains what Afghanistan’s frontline was really all about.
British Army Review, March 2016