Afghanistan: UK's failure to meet moral obligation to Afghans is a source of enduring shame – Martyn McLaughlin

With the Taliban gaining territory every passing day, and ordinary Afghans facing an increasingly dangerous future, the contempt shown by the UK government for its humanitarian obligations has been nothing short of shameful.

Instead, it has been exposed as feckless and heartless, and as it scrambles to make policy on the hoof in a belated attempt to help those most at risk, its stance remains a damning showcase for the conceit of British exceptionalism under Boris Johnson’s administration.

Even as the Taliban’s forces closed in on Kabul at the weekend, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab initially refused to cut his holiday short, despite the fact that hundreds of British paras had been deployed to help evacuate thousands of British nationals. The fact he scheduled a break abroad in the full knowledge of the withdrawal timetable was, in itself, a lamentable dereliction of duty.

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The Prime Minister, meanwhile, blithely insisted that Afghanistan must not become a “breeding ground for terror”, despite the fact that the rate of the Taliban’s advance on Kabul makes a mockery of the idea that it will somehow be inclined or compelled to compromise as it retakes power.

The response in the US was no less deplorable, with President Joe Biden remaining at Camp David despite the fact the fallout from the Taliban surge constitutes his nation’s gravest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.

A statement from the White House spoke of an “orderly and safe evacuation” of US personnel and their Afghan allies. Its release coincided with chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, where thousands of Afghans and foreign nationals surged onto the tarmac in desperate hope of escape. Mr Biden’s speech on Monday was no less disingenuous.

Both leaders have shown exceptionally poor judgement over Afghanistan, insisting only a month ago that the withdrawal of US and allied troops would not necessarily bring about scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975. Tell that to the families of those killed trying to flee.

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An Afghan family sits on the tarmac at Kabul airport, where thousands of people fled in the hope of escaping the Taliban (Picture: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)An Afghan family sits on the tarmac at Kabul airport, where thousands of people fled in the hope of escaping the Taliban (Picture: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
An Afghan family sits on the tarmac at Kabul airport, where thousands of people fled in the hope of escaping the Taliban (Picture: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

The immediate future for Afghanistan holds little in the way of promise for its people. Under the Taliban, there will be a swift return to brutal governance, the denial of basic human rights, and international isolation.

One of the most harrowing personal accounts of this retrenchment, and the devastating toll it will take, came from a young female university student due to graduate in November.

Instead, her world, and her prospects, have been shattered, as she described how she and her sisters were forced to hide away their diplomas and certificates. “In Afghanistan now,” she said, “we are not allowed to be known as the people we are.”

It is too late for the US, the UK, and other Nato allies to prevent this narrative from playing out, or rescue every Afghan who faces a perilous future. But at the very least, they can attempt to mitigate its worst impacts, and recognise that their own bloodied history in Afghanistan brings obligations.

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Those obligations are growing with every passing hour, with those Afghan translators and fixers who helped allied forces increasingly at risk of retaliation from the Taliban’s murder squads.

For all the self-congratulation surrounding the expansion of the UK government’s Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy, which has allowed around 3,300 interpreters, staff, and their families to move to Britain, it remains a deeply flawed framework.

Its qualifying criteria has always been callously narrow, and despite last-ditch efforts to expand the initiative, it lacks the urgency necessary to respond to a rapidly escalating crisis.

The safety of those who risked everything to help our armed forces has been at risk ever since the end of British combat operations in Helmand, and hundreds have died while waiting forlornly for sanctuary in the UK and the US.

Even now, some applications from those seeking a safe haven on these shores are being rejected due to petty disqualifying offences. They include an interpreter whose only misdeed was to return from leave a day late, and an Afghan man who refused to clean latrines after returning from three back-to-back patrols.

No civilised nation can possibly stand by such arbitrary rules in the face of a looming humanitarian disaster, and those who do risk undermining the fight against extremism in other corners of the world.

If, for example, you are a Malian national asked to help British troops in their efforts to quell an Islamist insurgency in the west African nation, it is increasingly hard not to perceive the promises of protection as empty. The failures of the catastrophic end to Britain’s mission in Afghanistan will be felt far and wide, and for years to come.

Similarly, Mr Raab’s insistence on Tuesday that the UK is looking at a “bespoke arrangement” for Afghan refugees is too little, too late. The government had ample opportunity to establish such a scheme ahead of the withdrawal. It chose not to do so.

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Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. At the same time as it was winding down its two decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the UK government slashed its bilateral aid budget for the nation by almost half, down from £170m to £94m.

It is responding halfheartedly to a tragedy it helped bring about, and blaming administrative inertia for its failure to protect those who helped serve this country so loyally. How quintessentially British.

Military defeat in Afghanistan may have been an inevitability, but accepting that does not give the UK or any other nation the right to walk away from its moral duties.

Those Afghans who tasted freedom, and felt a flicker of hope, will be asking if their sacrifices were worth it, and whether their safety can be guaranteed. It is a source of enduring shame and a stain on this nation’s conscience that we cannot provide them with an answer.

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