We trained Afghan pilots to fight the Taliban – we can’t leave them to the mercy of the warlords

As a commander of RAF forces in Basra, Air Marshal Edward Stringer worked alongside Afghans to fight the Taliban. Now, he writes, we must fulfil our promise to give them security

Wednesday 12 April 2023 16:24 BST
Afghan soldiers and police in Kandahar in 2008
Afghan soldiers and police in Kandahar in 2008 (AFP/Getty)

I have been a supporter of this country giving asylum to Afghans and Iraqis since 2007 – when I first saw the bravery of Iraqi interpreters accompanying our RAF Regiment patrols maintaining security around Basra airbase.

Often well educated, they had thrown in their lot with us, believing us when we said we would build a freer, more democratic society for them; one free of the warlords and gunmen.

I saw first-hand, too, the terror on their faces when they watched those same warlords escorted onto our base owing to an “accommodation” we had been forced to come to with just the forces we had claimed to be eradicating.

Our interpreters knew very well what this meant for them personally, especially if/when we left under the bogus cover of that accommodation – a weasel word if ever there was one.

Exactly the same applies to those Afghans who believed we would transform Afghanistan and not cut and run, leaving them to the Taliban. Many of those in the Afghan forces served with distinction alongside us – and the Taliban will never forget that.

We owe all a debt of honour and should offer them asylum, and the security we promised them, in the UK – not least because we could not guarantee them safety and security in Afghanistan. The Taliban knows as well as we do that we helped train the Afghan pilots (I remember vividly the start of that mission in Kandahar in 2008) and we should stand by those brave men – like the pilot The Independent is campaigning for – now.

It was in Basra in 2007 that I first heard reported an aphorism of the “Arab street”: that it is better to be an enemy of the British than a friend. If you are an enemy they will buy you, if a friend they will sell you.

It put the “accommodation” in a stark light. If we are not to live up to this reputation, we should do all we can to look after those who risked their lives to help us.

Air Marshal Edward Stringer
Air Marshal Edward Stringer (Royal Air Force)

I know many in the MoD, and across government, have worked hard to get Afghans out. But the limited numbers making it via the various schemes and safe routes, and the bureaucratic cock-ups along the way, suggest that the system is not as joined-up across government departments as it might be.

I am not surprised some have had to take to small boats to cross the Channel to the country they so readily served. We must repay the debt we so clearly owe them. Now is the time for us to demonstrate the decency on which we so pride ourselves.

We must offer safe haven to the pilot who risked his life to fight alongside us. And we must be generous to all his comrades now, in their hour of need.

Air Marshal Edward Stringer had RAF forces under command deployed to Basra in 2007. In 2008 he was the senior RAF commander in Afghanistan (Commander 904 Expeditionary Air Wing, Kandahar). From 2015 to 2018 he was the MoD’s director of operations in London, which included all operations in the ‘AfPak’ theatre

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