How the UK failed the army interpreters stranded in Afghanistan

We lost. Whatever hope we had that we could help Afghanistan crawl out of its misery has been shattered. The dreams of the 14 million women in Afghanistan or the tens of thousands of Kabul university graduates, who had grown-up after the expulsion of the Taliban, are now in ruins.

Afghanistan has been broken again, by the Afghans’ inability to bury their personal or ethnic differences; by the perfidy of the Pakistanis, who have harboured and nurtured the Taliban; and by the actions of a foolish old man who happens to be US President.

Caught in this web of misery are those who supported the Allied forces and those who participated in the Afghan renewal and modernisation programme. As British and American troops leave Afghanistan a huge number of local interpreters, journalists, human rights advocates, and staff who worked in western embassies have been left behind to pick up the pieces. They worked alongside our forces in Afghanistan and now many will pay the price if the Taliban exact revenge. There have been reports already that the Taliban are hunting down those who worked with the Allied armies and over 300 interpreters have been murdered by the group since 2014.

History is not kind to those caught on the wrong side of victory. No wonder then that we have seen the desperate scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport with people clinging to the side of US aircraft which are fleeing the country. The shocking filmed murders of surrendered Afghan soldiers and the reports of  the Taliban taking the names of those connected to the UK and US, all point to a grim future for those who sided with us.

This kind of catastrophe could have been avoided. Since 2014, when UK combat operations ended, the British government has reluctantly put in place schemes to offer sanctuary to the 7,000 Afghan civilians we worked with in the country. But our government has often dragged its feet and it was only this April that a fit for purpose scheme was put in place.

Facing almost relentless political and media pressure (first from the Daily Mail and then the Times), the government granted piecemeal more and more Afghan civilians and their families sanctuary, but it was only this year that it finally conceded that those who worked with the British government and army in Afghanistan should be offered relocation to the UK as the ‘default option’. Even then this clear position was undermined by an overly-bureaucratic system on the ground, which has continued to unfairly block sanctuary requests.

The new UK resettlement scheme, the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Programme (ARAP), had barely been launched when President Biden announced that all US troops would be clear of Afghanistan by 9/11. This meant in practice that US troops would begin to leave the country long before the withdrawal was completed. Arguably, this rapid withdrawal will go down as one of the worst unforced errors in US military history. Soon afterwards the Afghan national army collapsed and President Ghani fled the country.

After the scenes of chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, around 900 UK troops are now being deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Pitting to evacuate British nationals, embassy staff and those eligible to claim sanctuary in Britain.

It should go without saying that this is an emergency operation that has not been undertaken lightly. Operation Pitting is large scale and will involve the potential evacuation of thousands of British nationals and, hopefully, the majority of the locals and their families who worked with the British government and army.

The United States’ own evacuation mission, Allies Refuge, was launched in early July and in contrast to the British approach accepted that those claiming sanctuary would have to be evacuated before their applications could be processed. This approach accepted that some ‘non-entitled’ applicants would slip through, but it ensured that the most vulnerable would be able to leave the country before the Taliban took over.

The UK missed this opportunity. As late as last Saturday, the Sulha Alliance campaign to resettle Afghan interpreters (of which I am a co-founder) was still in detailed conversations with MoD officials about Afghan nationals who were being denied protection. As an example, one individual, Ahmedzai, who had worked for us for years had his visa revoked, allegedly for having links to the Taliban. Afghanistan is a country where it is normal for there to be only two degrees of separation between most of the population, so most people will have some ‘links’ to the group But putting this to one side, his alleged offences have not been explained to him (or his former commander, General Charlie Herbert), nor is there any opportunity to appeal.

Who is to blame for this fiasco? If successive governments, obsessively fixated on reducing their immigration figures by any means possible, had instead followed their moral compass and supported a fair, free and transparent system for Afghans looking to relocate to UK, we would not be where we are today. It has been seven years since we wound down our combat operations in Afghanistan – we should not have been processing applications as the Taliban entered Kabul.

More recently, even after the substantive policy changes that Ben Wallace and Priti Patel announced earlier this year, too much time and effort was spent checking every last detail when it came to Afghan applicants. The UK should have been prepared to take some risks, admit everyone with at least a plausible claim and agreed to sort out the paperwork later.

Lastly, it has taken endless badgering for the UK government to accept that embassy guards and British Council employees will be regarded by the Taliban as servants of the kufr and hunted down after we leave the country. They should have always been entitled to our protection.

As Ben Wallace admitted this week, it may be too late for the many Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to serve alongside the British army. We can only hope and pray that as many former staff and their families can be evacuated safely as Operation Pitting begins.


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