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Mistakes were clearly made in the Afghanistan withdrawal. We must not forget those left behind

3 min read

From a Military perspective, Operation Pitting, the emergency evacuation to airlift 15,000 Britons and at-risk Afghans was a formidable effort. Although lasting just a few days, I hope the MOD will not hesitate to express the nation’s gratitude by awarding a medal to all those involved.

But behind the scenes of the largest airlift since the 1948 Berlin blockade things were less impressive. Following the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week, it is clear there are painful lessons to be learned.

This week a 25-year-old civil servant old spilled the beans on what had been suspected for some time: The Foreign Office was not led during this crisis, which resulted in Afghans who we had a duty to evacuate being abandoned to the fate of the Taliban.

A picture is now emerging of a Whitehall department completely unprepared to do crisis management. Despite Mi6 /CIA threat assessments predicting the imminent fall of Kabul (once the border crossings were seized by the Taliban), senior players still chose to honour their holiday plans rather than prepare for inevitable international exodus and we seeded the country back to the very insurgency we went into defeat 20 years ago.

It was no surprise to learn that 95 per cent of the emails from Afghans who had helped us over the last 20 years went un-answered

All leave should have been cancelled, the large Foreign Office Crisis Management Centre should have been mobilised and the National Security Council – the pan Whitehall senior forum that handles both operational and strategic security co-ordination – should have taken the lead.

Without the leadership, situational awareness and monitoring to the fast moving and deteriorating threat picture, it was no surprise to learn that 95 per cent of the emails from Afghans who had helped us over the last 20 years went un-answered.

Mass evacuations have happened in the past and will occur again in the future. It’s something the Foreign Office, working with other Whitehall departments, should have contingency plans for – in readiness for the potential collapse of governance and security in any part of the world.

Simply saying “we did our best” is not the response that justifies the government drawing a line under the scale of failings – nor prepares us to do better in the next crisis.

Even today, MPs continue to receive harrowing emails from desperate Afghans whose lives are only in danger because of their previous connections in supporting the British military efforts over two decades. Yet we still do not have an adequate system in place to process applicants.

As so often is the case, we can rightly be proud of our Armed Forces. But as with the humiliating decision to withdraw in the first place, they were let down by the political decision making. It all underlines ever greater justification for full independent inquiry into Afghanistan.

It’s not just because there are outstanding questions – but because there are still outstanding obligations. Forty million people remain in Afghanistan, large numbers of which will struggle to survive the approaching winter.

If we still hold ambitions to help shape the world and play an influential role on the global stage, then we should step forward to help co-ordinate international support for those left behind.

We are, after all, the UN Security Council penholder for Peacekeeping for Civilians in Armed Conflict and for Women, Peace and Security UK. We should be leading calls for the World Bank to release assets to increase funding for key UN agencies, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme. They are critical if mass famine and starvation is to be avoided over the next few months.

Mistakes were clearly made this summer - let’s compensate by showing we have not forgotten those who are left behind.


Tobias Ellwood is the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and chair of the Defence Select Committee. 

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