Two decades of engagement in Afghanistan by British troops came to an end on Saturday night as the last military and diplomatic personnel left Kabul airport, ending the largest evacuation mission since the Second World War.
Operation Pitting airlifted more than 15,000 British nationals and allied personnel to safety in little under a fortnight.
But thousands more remain behind, to an uncertain future. They include dozens of Afghan interpreters who worked for the British army but have been told they will not be allowed into the UK because they are a “danger to [national] security”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “a moment to reflect on everything we have sacrificed and everything we have achieved in the last two decades”.
British boots first hit Afghan soil in November 2001, as part of a coalition tasked with finding the leaders of al-Qaeda in the wake of the deadly 9/11 attacks. But nearly 20 years later, after 457 British service personnel lost their lives, Afghanistan is again under the control of the militant group.
Labour has accused government ministers of being “missing in action” during the Afghanistan crisis as the blame game over the handling of the withdrawal after a 20-year campaign in the country.
The Sunday Times reported that fingers were being pointed at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) over a lack of escape routes from the country, with claims that up to 9,000 people who may have been eligible to escape – such as women, journalists, and aid workers – were left behind.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace previously said he believed there were between 800 and 1,100 Afghans eligible under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme who would be left behind, while around 100 and 150 UK nationals will remain in Afghanistan, although Mr Wallace said some of those were staying willingly.
But MPs have said that, judging by their correspondence, they thought the true numbers were far higher.
A whistleblower with access to the Foreign Office email accounts reportedly showed The Observer that an inbox used to receive potential Afghan evacuation cases from MPs and others regularly had a 5,000 unread email backlog, with emails from government ministers, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and MPs going unopened.
Sir Keir said: “Can the government tell us how many of the people in those emails got out, or more importantly haven’t who were eligible to? We need urgent answers from the prime minister on what will be done to ensure the safety of those left behind, on proper support for MPs to be able to do their job and on new leadership at the Foreign Office.
“The complacency and incompetence of this government has been exposed yet again and with tragic consequences. We’ve known for 18 months that this moment was coming. It is unconscionable that there was no strategy in place to get all the British nationals and Afghans we owed a debt to out.”
Around 2,200 of those airlifted to safety – on more than 100 RAF flights – were children, the youngest was just one day old.
One refugee, Soman Noori, gave birth to a baby girl, Havva, on an evacuation flight on its way to Birmingham on Saturday.
And as well as taking people out, the armed forces also flew in vital supplies such as vegetarian and halal meals and 250,000 litres of bottled water, to distribute to those waiting to escape.
British capacity in Afghanistan had been diminished since October 2014, when the central hub of operations in Helmand Province, Camp Bastion, was handed over to Afghan forces and combat troops were withdrawn.
But a small number of personnel stayed behind to help train and advise the Afghan National Security Forces, alongside American forces who continued a scaled-back combat mission.
Last year, President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban agreed on a withdrawal date for all Nato forces in what is known as the Doha agreement.
In exchange, the Taliban committed to preventing al-Qaeda from operating in areas they controlled, and to have ongoing talks with the western-backed Afghan government.
The pledge to withdraw troops was upheld by President Joe Biden, who said soldiers would be gone before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
And without the support of the US military, British forces said they had little choice but to leave.
The British embassy and ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, will temporarily relocate to Qatar, but the intention is to reopen an embassy in Kabul as soon as possible.
And ministers have stressed that the Arap scheme is not time-limited, and others deemed vulnerable, such as women and girls, can apply for the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, which will take up to 20,000 refugees in coming years.
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