The British military were heroes to the last in Afghanistan – now we must help those we have welcomed, and those left behind
Afghans gather near a gate of Kabul airport, Afghanistan, in an attempt to make it onto evacuation flights, 22 August 2021 | Alamy
I know many Parliamentary colleagues share my sense of frustration at what has happened in Afghanistan over the past month. In years to come historians will reflect on this moment but there is no doubt in my mind the seeds were laid by a bad deal done in Doha some 18 months beforehand.
Many are now asking was it worth it? For me this was a conflict worth fighting for. We kept al-Qaeda off our streets, dispersed that organisation and weakened it to the extent that their leader Osama Bin Laden was eventually killed. We built infrastructure for one of the poorest countries in the world and helped educate women and other people in that country that would never have had access to education.
During Operation Pitting we’ve once again seen the men and women of our Armed Forces perform wonders. Our incredible RAF flew 260,000 miles making some 330 flights, at one point airlifting 1,000 people a day. Despite dealing with overcrowding, desperate people and searing heat, they helped evacuate almost 16,000 people including more than 2,100 children.
But this was truly a whole of government endeavour; from the 1,000 plus military and MoD civil servants working 24 hours a day, to the efforts of border officials and embassy staff both in Kabul and at home.
Nor can we forget the immense endeavours and support of our closest allies, the United States, without whose airport infrastructure we would not have been able to operate. Together they played their part in the biggest humanitarian airlift in more than seventy years, once again showcasing why the British military are one of, if not the most, agile and pioneering forces across the globe.
I was honest about the reality that no nation would be able to get everyone out, but I know that that doesn’t dampen the sorrow
And we have been clear already in the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper earlier this year how, in future, we will use a more pro-active and nimbler military to intervene in failing states earlier to try to prevent full-blown conflicts.
But sadly none of this tempers the fact that in our last weeks in Afghanistan, we couldn’t help everyone. Like me, I know most colleagues have received emails from those who were desperate to leave. I was honest about the reality that no nation would be able to get everyone out, but I know that that doesn’t dampen the sorrow. Instead we must put all our efforts into ensuring that this isn’t the end of our evacuation.
Our Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy is not time limited. We stand by our obligations to support those who supported us and we have been hard at work ensuring we can process people from third countries and refugee camps. As a result we are beefing up our defence sections across the region outside Afghanistan alongside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) rapid deployment teams and are working closely with the Home Office and FCDO to ensure the swift return of remaining British nationals and those eligible under the new Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme.
I have also directed that we commit to an enduring process of communication with the 300 eligible ARAP personnel already processed who remain in Afghanistan and we continue to process the more recent applications as they present.
In the meantime, our thoughts turn to supporting those Afghans who have arrived. Our job is to give them the warmest possible welcome. It’s already been heart-warming to see communities right across the country extending the hand of friendship by providing donations of food and clothing.
But there’s more to do. As I write, the government is working with councils across the country to make sure these brave individuals are properly integrated into the economy and society and I have no doubt that Parliamentary colleagues will do all they can in their constituencies to help with this.
Our debt to the Afghan people runs for 20 years. In many cases their knowledge helped save British lives. Now it’s our job to help them.
Ben Wallace, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North and defence secretary
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