City of Soldiers, by Kate Fearon

Second paragraph of third chapter:

We shake hands and he tells me about his church. It’s the big racing green tent on the way down to the canteen (galley, apparently, because the current brigade is the Navy, even though we aren’t on a ship). The door has always been closed over when I’ve passed, but the entrance is around the other side. Next time I go past I take a look. Yes, it’s got all the church gear all right: simple bench seating that’s bound to be painful to sit on, a central aisle, and, at the top, a table altar and a small lectern. The altar is demurely dressed: white cloth and a gold chalice. It waits, mutely, for souls. Over the next few days I take a look fairly regularly and I never see anyone in there. I have no idea what denomination it is.

I’ve known Kate Fearon for about thirty years. She was president of the Students Union at Queen’s University when I was a postgraduate; it was an incubator of political talent. Like me, she worked as a party aide in the 1996-98 peace talks, in her case for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition; unlike me, she stuck it out to the end, and was there on Good Friday 1998. Like me, she subsequently went to work for the National Democratic Institute in Bosnia-Herzegovina; unlike me, she has spent most of her subsequent career in various field assignments, in Afghanistan, Kosovo and currently Georgia. Six years ago she kindly took this photograph of me as we were walking together through the Parc Leopold in Brussels one lunchtime:

Here she gives an impressionistic, first-person, present-tense account of the year she spent in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2009-10 as Governance Adviser to the UK-led international presence in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. It’s a story of life in primitive military conditions under the constant threat of death. Among the British soldiers who she works with, several die each week, whether by accident of design. The local leaders, whose efforts to build a new structure of government she is supporting, are also under constant threat, and several of those who she had got to know well were indeed assassinated by the Taliban. It is a beautifully written and intense read; you can practically feel the sand in your eyes and taste the flavour of the lamb stew. You can get it here.

In the light of what happened in 2021, it is a particularly poignant read. The book was published in 2012, and concludes with the observation that the situation was very fragile, and might not survive a drawdown of Western troops (as indeed proved to be the case). I don’t know enough about the country to draw conclusions about the failure of the Western mission there, but I do know enough to be pretty clear that it failed dismally.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next up is Franco-Irish Relations, 1500-1610, by Mary Ann Lyons.