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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 16:33 | SYDNEY

My books of the year

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8 December 2011 07:57

Judging by the release of important books on the subject, it's not been a year to bolster confidence in the future of Afghanistan, whatever position one takes on Australia's involvement in that country. Two books specifically dealing with British involvement are certainly worth reading, Toby Harnden's 'Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain's War in Afghanistan', and Sherard Cowper-Coles, 'Cables from Kabul: The inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign'.

Harnden's book, which was a cause celebre even before it was published, is a searing account of the Welsh Guards deployment in Helmand province in 2009. Embedded for a period with the Guards, Harnden recounts the near-impossible task set a highly professional unit with inadequate equipment. The Ministry of Defence, advised by its most senior generals, initially tried to prevent the book's publication, then sought many changes to its content, and finally paid over £100,000 to the publisher for the first edition's pulping. In its final form, it is grim but compelling read.

If Harnden's book tells the story from the soldiers' point of view — and it does so for rankers as much as for officers — Cowper-Coles is the view of a senior Foreign Office official, first sent to Afghanistan as British ambassador and then acting as Britain's Special Representative to Afghanistan.

As one would expect from his mandarin's background, Cowper-Coles writes with wit, scatters classic tags along the way, and makes very clear his deep frustration with the failure of many of his Foreign Office colleagues to understand the nature of Afghanistan or the interaction between political and military objectives. In a phrase that ought to be pondered in the RG Casey Building in Canberra, he observes that when it comes to inter-ministerial discussions about Afghanistan, the Foreign Office tends to occupy the place of 'last among equals.'

I don't expect readers of The Interpreter to rush out to find my next offering, though it is an important publication. For years scholars have been waiting for a full-scale history of Southeast Asia to replace the pioneering work of DGE Hall's monumental 'A History of South-East Asia', first published in 1955, and then republished three times, with a final edition in 1981. Now, this year, there is a replacement, a multi-authored volume edited by MC Ricklefs, 'A New History of Southeast Asia'. As with any book like this, it is not the last word, but for the moment it is the best comprehensive and substantial work available.

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