Kandak by Patrick Hennessey is an eloquent account of the role that the Afghan forces are playing in battle against the Taliban. It is a considered counterblast to the many official and unofficial Regimental accounts of the conflict which focus on the undoubted exploits of the British forces, whilst glossing over the heroic contribution of the Afghans. In so doing, Hennessey challenges the British Army orthodoxy which caricatures which the Afghan forces as ill-disciplined, untrustworthy and even cowardly.
Hennessey, now a barrister, in putting together his case for the defence, draws strongly on his own experience as a Grenadier Guard Captain embedded as a mentor to an Afghan 'Kandak' (Fighting unit) in Sangin and Helmand in 2007 and interviews conducted in the field on two subsequent visits.
The book falls into two parts; The first is the account of his growing friendship and camaraderie with Afghan soldiers, forged by fighting alongside them in the heat of Op Silicon and the push into the Green Zone. For Hennessey, there was no "them and us" - indeed, he clearly felt a closer bond with the members of his Afghan Kandak than he did with members of other British regiments serving out there at the time. Hennessey's views are not rose-tinted - there is a balanced realism to his apologetic. The result is a passionate account of brave Afghan soldiers who, despite a different approach and some failings, have lost lives and limbs in this attritional conflict in which there really are no winners.
The second part of the book is more reflective, as Hennessey draws on other military authors and press coverage as he grapples with the wider question of the nature, history and lessons learned from the Afghan conflict and the role that the Afghan forces are playing. Hennessey explores with great insight the relationship between the Afghans and their British mentors, a relationship characterised by mistrust on both sides.
One of the strongest and well-written parts of the book is the chapter 'Sex, Drugs and Shades of Grey' (p.252) where Hennessey explores the cultural and moral differences between the British and Afghan forces. It is here that he goes onto the offensive. Perhaps freed up by some distance from the Regiment, he points out the hypocrisy of 'functioning alcoholic [British] officers' banned for drink driving criticising Afghans for taking drugs; or indeed the body-building Paras, and 'pink lacy thong'-wearing Marines calling Afghans 'bender boys'.
Hennessey summarises his intent in his epilogue:
"I wanted to provide a glimpse of men like Qiam, Syed Hazrat, Mujib and the others because they weren't the inept jokers we had thought we would work with in 2007, neither are they Western puppets, neither are they a lost cause or the complete solution. They are what we all were: ordinary solideris doing a difficult, sometimes extraordinary, job. Whatever anyone else thinks . . . the warriors of the ANA, wounded, tired, downbeat though they sometimes were, never doubted that what they were doing was worth the cost." p.366
This book is beautifully written (as befits a Berkhamsted scholar who read English at Oxford) with some wonderful human observation (try the chapter on 'Military Tourism' p.283ff ).
Kandak is a sequel to Patrick Hennessey's first best-seller, The Junior Officer's Reading Club (My Review).