The testimony of a whistleblower about the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan describes an ill-equipped, chaotic evacuation. Raphael Marshall, a former Foreign Office diplomat, suggested that out of an estimated 75,000-150,000 people who applied for evacuation under the Leave Outside the Rules scheme, fewer than 5% received assistance. These were people who feared for their lives as a result of their connection to the UK. Many, he claims, have subsequently been killed by the Taliban.
Most astounding is that during the most important diplomat crisis arguably since Suez, the highest echelons of UK diplomacy were absent. Former foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has defended himself against accusations of inattention while on holiday. During a Foreign Affairs committee session, we learned that Sir Philip Barton, head of the UK’s diplomatic corps, was also on holiday for two and a half weeks, as were other senior diplomats. Holidays, as British ambassador to Afghanistan Laurie Bristow ordered the closure of the British high commission and prepared to evacuate his staff.
Raab and Barton are redirecting focus to the successful rescue of some 15,000 people from Afghanistan. While it is true that British forces rescued UK nationals, former employees of international organisations and a selection of Afghans who worked with UK military forces, the Foreign Office also ignored the needs of the most vulnerable, and failed to respond to their calls for help.
The chaos described by Marshall has been at the forefront of my mind since the fall of Kabul. For the past two years I have been co-directing a UK government funded research programme through the Global Challenges Research Fund. Afghanistan is one of our research sites, where until mid-July enumerators were conducting surveys on my request. These Afghan colleagues, like others funded through by UK government – including artists, activists, journalists and filmmakers – were denied visas to leave Afghanistan.
Before the Taliban patrolled the exit gate, the UK government erected its own political barriers. It required Afghans to apply for multiple different types of visas, but failed to provide the administrative support to process their applications. Marshall recalls that more than 5,000 emails sent to the Foreign Office went unanswered. I can vouch for several hundred of them. I saw the names of 800 individuals who sought to leave before the Taliban takeover and personally sent lists of 350 names to defence minister Ben Wallace and Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary in the Home Office, as well as to the Foreign Office in August.
As they waited for the UK government to respond, our colleagues grew desperate – as did our coalition of academics based at UCL, the LSE, City and Middlesex University who had been working with Afghan partners over many years. One of our colleagues, “J”, who had a student visa issued by the UK high commission in Islamabad, was on his way to the airport when he received a call from the Polish embassy in Delhi inviting him to board their evacuation flight. We spoke via WhatsApp a few minutes later, and he decided to take the option in front of him rather than wait for the British to call.
Over more than 12 hours, he waited and witnessed Taliban forces striking anxious Afghans with batons. We spoke every couple of hours as we learned of his progress. He finally reached the gate, but could not locate any Polish officers. American troops prevented him from entering the airport. Fortunately, social media came to the rescue. I sent a tweet which was picked up by the Polish ambassador, who shared messages with his consulate that filtered down to soldiers on the ground. Eventually, J made it through, and after another 24 hours (and a stopover in Uzbekistan) he arrived in Poland.
As J progressed to the airport, he provided us with information, including descriptions of the area in front of the gate, the names of officers and mobile phone numbers. We pressed the Polish embassy to help evacuate more of our colleagues, and repeated J’s exit route over the next three days. In the end, Poland rescued 25 UK government-funded colleagues. Three others reached Italy, Sweden and Spain.
Throughout August, our academic group approached the US, Canadian, French, German, Italian, Irish, Spanish, Bosnian, Turkish, Swedish, Mexican and North Macedonian governments – far from an exhaustive list. With the announcement of the US withdrawal, the Taliban took control over the airport, and it became impossible to get anyone else out.
My inbox filled with messages from ex-military and independent people smugglers offering to help colleagues leave. They would encourage them to upload, then destroy their documents, and try to make it out over land via Tajikistan. This approach would only terrify desperate Afghans, so we declined the offers, continuing to seek safe, legal routes out.
We have had some success. One country issued humanitarian visas to 34 colleagues who were flown to safety thanks to a private philanthropist offering almost US$300,000 (£226,500) to cover charter flights and temporary living costs. We are raising funds to finance the evacuation and third-country reception of our remaining colleagues, in the hope the UK will eventually make good on its promises of resettlement.
Time to govern
Of course, none of this should fall to academics. The lack of leadership on what is now an unavoidable humanitarian emergency is just one consequence of the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan that Marshall describes. The second chapter of this tragedy is that the UK government has not only been defeated by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but also by its own incompetence and unwillingness to protect its interests and those who dared to advance them. That’s the message we gave to the Defence committee last month.
The way forward is simple – the UK should stand by its commitments. The Home Office needs to open the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and cooperate to facilitate the safe passage of Afghans out of Afghanistan and third countries, and bring them to the UK. The government should give local authorities support to receive Afghans, like the former Syrian resettlement scheme introduced a few years ago, which aimed to help 20,000 refugees.