Time is running out – we must honour our promise to those Afghans who trusted us to save them
While the Taliban 2.0 PR machine is certainly slicker than the 1990s version, we must not be seduced by their rhetoric. Already in provinces where TV cameras are no longer rolling, girls have been married off to fighters and turned away from school.
This has been a very difficult week for those in the military, diplomatic and NGO communities, many of whom have been fielding thousands of frantic calls, texts, and emails from Afghans begging for our help. I am not ashamed to admit that these tales of human tragedy and desperation have brought me to tears.
As Tom Tugendhat expressed so eloquently in the House of Commons yesterday, talking to friends and former colleagues; brave, honourable, and professional Afghan police and military partners, with whom we have fought and bled, opens old wounds.
These are not the men characterised by some political leaders as having abandoned their posts. These are loyal Afghan fighters who did everything in their power to defend the country they love, choosing only to return home to protect their families once it was clear their political masters had sold them out.
There are many to whom the UK owes a huge debt of gratitude. Their service to our Crown now marking them out for retribution, once the eyes of the world are turned.
We must behave as if every 12-hour period is our last. Everything beyond is a bonus
While the Taliban 2.0 PR machine is certainly slicker than the 1990s version, we must not be seduced by their rhetoric. The inaugural news conference did nothing to assuage the concerns of vulnerable groups, not least the 18 million women and girls, many of whom do not yet know the reality of life under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law. Already in provinces where TV cameras are no longer rolling, girls have been married off to fighters and turned away from school.
But even in Kabul, where the Taliban should be on their best behaviour, female professionals, including a well-known television newsreader, have been barred from work, ordered to go home, and informed that their jobs must now be filled by men.
This is the reality, and we must not be naïve to that fact or become complacent.
Despite various “assurances”, the window for us to evacuate the most vulnerable is closing, and fast. We are not in charge of the timeline. That has already been ceded to the Taliban.
We must therefore, think and behave as if every 12-hour period is our last. Everything beyond is a bonus. To that end, the time for deliberation and debate is over.
Policy makers must now to ensure that the men and women from across government and the military, doing their very best in near impossible conditions in Kabul, are provided with whatever is required to increase the capacity and capability of the UK’s evacuation process.
Reports of families being called for flights, only to miss their window due to the crush at the main gate, or stories of evacuees in wheelchairs or with small children being unable even to get close to a soldier to show them their paperwork, is heart-breaking.
After six weeks of lobbying by leveraging personal connections, up to and including at ministerial level, I was able to help one family get out of Kabul last night, for whom remaining would have been a death sentence, but it should not have needed such personal involvement. We need a solution that can adapt quickly to the complexity on the ground, and a system that works for everyone to whom we have made a promise.
Time is running out, but we still have a chance to salvage something from this defeat. The UK has always prided itself on leading by example. Now is the time to prove it.
Ash Alexander-Cooper OBE is a former British Army officer. He served eight tours of Afghanistan in multiple NATO combat and training roles and was a Senior Advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs.
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