Nine months on from the fall of Kabul, the tragic human cost of Britain’s failings continues to mount
As the United Kingdom and our allies made plans for a hasty exit from Afghanistan last summer, thousands of Afghans received emails from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) informing them that they would be evacuated, following successful Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme applications.
However, as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s new report makes clear, chronic failures in leadership, planning and coordination in Whitehall, together with confused communications between the FCDO and ARAP-eligible Afghans, meant that many did not make it to safety.
On 29 August 2021, the FCDO sent the following email: “The UK evacuation operation has now ended…We are sorry if, as we think, you were not able to reach the evacuation point… If you were approved for evacuation, you will be supported if you wish to relocate to the United Kingdom.”
Since that date, I have been in almost daily contact with hundreds of Afghans, with whom I served for years, who have been waiting to hear something, anything, from the British government. The more entrepreneurial among them have managed to make their way, legally or illegally, to third countries, from where they were given reason to believe the UK would also evacuate them. With neither guidance nor consular support, some now face the very real risk of deportation back to Afghanistan where they face certain reprisals.
Guilty only of having served the UK and her interests, their abandonment is a stain on our honour
Others in Afghanistan remain in hiding, isolated from their families, unable to work, as food and money runs out. All continue to wait, in vain, for the FCDO to explain exactly how – practically – they will be “supported”.
The luckiest of those we abandoned have avoided the systematic targeting by the Taliban. Others have not been so lucky. My phone is full of files shared by former colleagues and friends – videos and photos of brutal beatings, torture and cold-blooded murder, often carried out deliberately by government officials in front of their families.
One of those murdered, in September, leaves behind a wife and five children – all under the age of 10 – each traumatised by being witness to the crime. Tragically, in this case, their father had successfully made it into the British evacuation centre at Kabul airport, only to be turned away after three days following some confusion about the spelling of his name on a Home Office spreadsheet. Other more recent killings are equally shocking, barbaric and ultimately avoidable.
So while it is important to capture past failings in leadership and planning far from the front line, more imperative is to recognise that, for tens of thousands of Afghans who continue to be impacted by the consequences of our broken promises, this is far from over. Guilty only of having served the UK and her interests, their abandonment is a stain on our honour. Although it is tragically too late for some, we should redouble our efforts to do what is right for the remainder.
If we have neither the will nor capacity to honour the commitments we made, we serve only to give false hope to the most desperate, erode trust and do lasting damage to our country’s reputation.
Ash Alexander-Cooper OBE is a former specialist military unit colonel in the British Armed Forces.
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