Hundreds of Afghans spirited out of country by unofficial military veterans' network

Former soldiers are helping their former Afghan colleagues escape from Taliban

One of the last US Air Force transport planes leaves Kabul. With the official evacuation programme coming to a close, former British and American military veterans are helping their former employees to escape the Taliban regime, 'The National' has learnt. AFP
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Former British and American special forces soldiers have been helping Afghans flee the country via unofficial networks after the formal evacuation process ended, The National can disclose.

Escape lines have been formed to enable ex-military employees such as interpreters and cooks to leave behind the Taliban regime using illicit border crossings and safe houses in major cities.

Hundreds of Afghans are being spirited away from the Taliban’s grasp as a continuation of the unofficial US-led Operation Pineapple Express that helped scores escape through Kabul airport in recent days.

But with the airport now largely sealed off, other routes are being examined with hundreds of people held in safe houses in Kabul, Kandahar and other cities while they await instructions on how to escape.

Terrified former workers for international forces have also taken to using the LinkedIn business platform to connect with former soldiers and arrange for covert evacuation.

Afghans housed in tents at Ramstein US airbase in Germany. Many thousands more are trying to escape with hundreds being assisted by ex-special forces troops. AP

“LinkedIn has become the favoured online resource for people to connect with our escape networks to get them out of Afghanistan,” a former British serviceman told The National.

“We are getting hundreds of requests from people to help them get out after they’ve been abandoned by the UK and US governments. We are telling them to stay calm and wait as it’s not safe to go to the airport now, it’s just too dangerous.”

Another private security contractor said he was sheltering 12 female Afghan journalists in a safe house in Kabul. “They are terrified but we’ve told them to stay put until we can do something for them,” he said from London. “This is unofficial, done through the old, regimental, ex-veterans network with no government assistance.”

There are reports that the Taliban are stopping all unmarried females at the borders and forcing them to marry their fighters. In one instance, a brother and sister managed to get across by pretending they were married.

However, the last unofficial border paths from Afghanistan into Pakistan now have Taliban flags flying above them making exit highly dangerous for former military employees.

The border with Tajikistan is now reportedly being used as an escape line. “There is that route but we’re also waiting for things to calm down a bit before getting people across the Pakistan border into Peshawar,” the security contractor said.

There are an estimated 5,000 former British-employed staff still stuck in Afghanistan with their families.

Challenged over the lack of organisation in getting former staff including an unnamed interpreter out of the country, the Foreign Office minister James Cleverly told the BBC: “We will not stop working to get people like him out of the country.” He said the government would “look at all kind of options” in moving all eligible people to safety.

More than 15,000 people have been helped to leave Afghanistan by the UK this month but official government figures suggest more than 1,100 eligible Afghans and up to 150 British passport holders have been unable to board evacuation flights.

Questioned over what those left behind should do, Mr Cleverly said: “As soon as we are able to give clear advice ... we will circulate that.”

It has also been suggested that specialist Afghan troops trained by British forces should be allowed to form their own unit within the British Army, similar to the Gurkhas from Nepal.

“We are currently assessing how to best support them and utilise their skills and expertise going forward,” a Ministry of Defence spokesman said.

Germany reportedly wants to keep the door open for invited Afghans to flee to Europe – but not open it so wide that a flood of refugees enters.

German Foreign Secretary Heiko Maas said there could be no repeat of the chaos in Kabul, where people with no visas or passports crowded outside the airport in the hope of escaping the Taliban.

Europe is determined to avoid a rerun of the 2015 refugee crisis when more than a million people crossed EU borders to seek asylum.

Updated: August 30, 2021, 2:16 PM