Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe: Heidi Kingstone’s Reportage Puts Afghanistan’s Problems in Stark Relief


Fourteen years after America’s invasion of Iraq and the establishment of a new government, it is widely accepted that Afghanistan is an unstable state with democratic deficits and that the results of the intervention were far from the goals. A report from the Vision of Humanity in 2013 that called that Afghanistan the least peaceful in the world put those failures in stark relief. But just to hear the numbers—4,500 people died from terrorist attacks in 201420% of young women are literate—doesn’t do justice to the victims.

Each number in those datasets is a real person. Heidi Kingstone, in her book Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe, gives voice to some of their stories, especially those of the women who are usually silent. Kingstone, a Canadian foreign correspondent with experience in Iraq as well, who has been published in the Financial Times, the Spectator and the Guardian, lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2011. Her time there, being towards the end of the mission, after the irrational exuberance of the first days of “flowering democracy,” gives her a good position to comment on the problems the operation has faced.

To start with, she shows the human stakes, with a picture of a free-spirited woman who is faced with violence when she turns down a man’s advances and must go into hiding. This sets the tone for a book replete with tales of the misogynistic culture of Afghanistan and some strong women who are fighting back. One poignant section tells of an Afghan feminist who met with Kingstone despite opposition from her family. “Was it my destiny to be born in a country where I, a woman, am considered no better than an animal? We need to fight for our rights because no one else is going to do it for us,” she said. But the sad fact is the culture is such that it is hard to fight back, and even that Gucci-wearing feminist ultimately had to give in to the control of her family.

Dispatches covers broad ground, including covering the grey-market weapons deals, corruption, the social lives of diplomats, the economics of the occupation and Afghan mental health treatment. It is divided into 22 chapters, some of which jump around between different times and themes. Some major figures are referenced throughout the book, whose exploits are tied together. In that way it is very much a collection of reportage. That some of the chapters even use different fonts to imbue a specified meaning reflects that. The benefit of this style is that it can give a look at Afghanistan from many facets, but some readers might have preferred more of a narrative arc.

Still, the lack of a comprehensive organization also reflects some of the pitfalls associated with the strategy of the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan in general, as described by Kingstone. There were so many assorted people and groups working in Afghanistan, with agendas that weren’t aligned, that the parties couldn’t work together to get important things done. The military couldn’t change Afghan thinking with military force. While civil society groups went there often with noble intentions, they also sometimes had their own agendas to do things that got attention but didn’t satisfy the needs of the people. One example Kingstone cites is a failed attempt to get Afghan women to earn money from the manufacture of jewelry that inspired a lot of people to donate at first but that didn’t account for economic realities.

Moreover, soldiers were only there for six-to-twelve-month shifts, and diplomats and social workers were absconded inside safe zones, drinking together in expat clubs, and didn’t deeply understand Afghan culture. The other problem with Americans not understanding Afghan culture is that they had to rely on fixers to go between the Afghans and the Americans, creating many opportunities for the kinds of corruption that wastes resources and destroys trust in government.

From the start, Americans tried to organize the invasion of Afghanistan and other operations in the War on Terror into overly simple narratives that described an easy answer to the problems. The reality is that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are far too complex to be described in any simple narrative. Heidi Kingstone’s Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe does much to convey this message. It should be recommended reading to anyone who wants to know what went wrong in Afghanistan and for us to read before America’s next big Middle East engagement.

Kingstone herself didn’t seem to bake an overriding agenda into the book—except perhaps for attention to be paid to the travails of women suffering in Afghanistan. In so much as it describes what was happening in Afghanistan and what was happening wasn’t good, I saw in my reading of it the failures of American policy.

In the last chapter, Kingstone relates what happened to some of the reoccurring figures mentioned when they spread out around the world after leaving Afghanistan, going back home, to new jobs, or off to “the next war zone.” Maybe that’s the message. Things will continue to go to hell, and they won’t be fixed by outsiders. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong to try. But we need to do more thinking and come up with a better plan next time.