British ambassador posts update from Kabul after remaining in country to help process visa applications

Sir Laurie Bristow says evacuators ‘putting everything we can’ into rescue effort as it enters ‘critical’ phase

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 18 August 2021 17:18
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British ambassador remains in Afghanistan to oversee evactuations

The UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who put his own evacuation plans on hold to help British nationals and their Afghan allies leave the country after its fall to the Taliban, has posted a video update from Kabul.

In the days prior to the militant group sweeping into the capital on Sunday, following the steady withdrawal of Nato troops in support of the national government, reports had indicated that the UK embassy was to be swiftly evacuated, mirroring a rush by the US and other Western nations to do the same.

Indeed, by Saturday night, only tens of British officials and diplomats remained in Afghanistan, down from close to 500 earlier in the week.

But amid the ensuing panic, as key officials including president Ashraf Ghani fled abroad and the US was forced to temporarily shut the airport after desperate Afghans flooded the runway seeking the safety many of them had been promised, it emerged that the UK ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow had remained in post to personally help process visa applications.

“I’ve just stepped out of the evacuation handling centre for a moment,” Sir Laurie said in a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday.

“We’re putting everything we can into getting British nationals and Afghans who have worked with us in the past out of Afghanistan and to safety.”

Reporting that some 700 people had been evacuated on Tuesday, he added: “We’re trying to scale up the pace over the next couple of days ... try to get out everyone who we need to get to safety as soon as we can.”

Sir Laurie, whose three-decade career with the Foreign Office has seen him hold diplomatic posts in Europe, Asia and the Middle East ahead of a stint as the department’s director of national security, said he was “very proud” of the evacuation team working at the airport.

Downing Street had earlier said he had been joined by diplomatic staff and officials from the Home Office, while Sir Laurie referenced colleagues from “across government”.

As a result of the withdrawal of Nato troops from Afghanistan, initiated in part by former US president Donald Trump in 2019 and progressed by his successor Joe Biden, the UK had set up the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) to allow its local allies in the country to seek refuge in Britain.

The scheme had seen more than 2,200 Afghans relocated by July, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and had been expanded to include family members, former employees who had resigned or been dismissed and those now based outside Afghanistan.

But last month dozens of former British military commanders warned that hundreds of interpreters – supposedly on the MoD’s “eligible by default” list – had seen their applications rejected. Those who had been dismissed from service “without any due process or ability to appeal” are still excluded from ARAP, the commanders said.

While some 600 military personnel have been drafted in over the past week to help with the evacuation of British nationals and to “accelerate” the ARAP effort, defence secretary Ben Wallace broke down during an interview on Monday as he admitted: “Some people won’t get back. And we will have to do our best as third countries to process those people.”

The ongoing evacuation effort, dubbed Operation Pitting, was said to be aiming to rescue some 4,000 UK nationals and eligible Afghans from Kabul, where – despite the Taliban’s pledge of an “amnesty” for its political opponents – reports have emerged of “targeted killings”, abductions and door-to-door searches.

While military evacuation flights resumed at Kabul airport on Tuesday morning, the escape route was temporarily closed after thousands rushed onto the runway seeking a way out of Afghanistan. Seven deaths were reported, with gunshots, stampedes and falls from an airborne plane among the possible causes posited by witnesses and and anonymous US military officials.

On Wednesday, the chief of the UK’s defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, warned that the next 24 hours would be “critical” in the rescue mission, with at least seven aircraft expected to head to Kabul and bring back another 1,000 in that period.

At least 2,200 diplomats and other civilians had already been airlifted out in previous days and there are no reports of people facing difficulties in leaving Afghanistan, the general told the BBC.

On top of the ARAP scheme, the UK has since agreed to take in 5,000 Afghan refugees over the next year, with a more vague pledge to accept 20,000 “in the long-term”.

While the newly announced resettlement scheme has been widely criticised as inadequate, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson told The Independent that the number reflected “our expectations of how many people will be able to both be seeking to leave, and will be able to leave, over that time period”.

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