The title of Mills' book has an imperial ring to it, for there is something intrepid about the author, who traveled from his native South Africa to Afghanistan to serve as a senior civilian advisor to General David Richards, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commander from May 2006 to February 2007.
"I want to rub off my British habits and go off with Feisal for a bit. Amusing job and all new country." Mills here quotes T. E. Lawrence writing to a colleague in 1916. Mills is a South African academic although at times it seems he would like to have been a soldier. His memoir shows that he understands war better than most and saw it up close in his many journeys beyond International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul. Mills is a bold traveler, and like Lawrence, his interest flares. He projects a passionate commitment to the success of the mission. Taking a cue from Lawrence, Mills entitles one of his chapters "The Eighth Pillar of Wisdom" and offers an illuminating analysis of the problems facing the West, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, which he attributes to policymakers' inadequate knowledge of those countries' histories. His is some of the best writing on counterinsurgency from someone who witnessed it in the course of frequent visits into the field.
It is an amusing read at times, as he offers us mini-vignettes of life in the cantonment — originally built as a British officers' mess in the second Afghan invasion of the 1870s — that ISAF calls headquarters. The ISAF staff, like Mills himself, worked incredibly hard, and as I witnessed myself on a visit in August 2007, the commitment of the senior officers is unqualified, even daunting. If NATO fails, it will not be for lack of hard work.
Mills departed Afghanistan with few illusions and, perhaps, fewer hopes but with an unqualified commitment to the mission. In Richards, he served a remarkable commander; in the author of this book, Richards appointed an outstanding advisor who has an understanding of the limits of the possible. This is more than can be said for the politicians to whom Richards had to report.