British troops were forced to use local radios during the chaos of the August evacuation of Kabul as they lacked their own communication equipment, military commanders have said.
The late arrival of specialised military radios meant that paratroopers had to obtain local mobile phones and walkie-talkies, a webinar held by the Royal United Services Institute think tank heard.
Soldiers landing in Kabul airport from Britain on August 15 – the same day the Taliban seized the capital – went straight into crowd control or medical emergencies, commanders from the Parachute Regiment said.
“The operation was undeniably tough,” said Lt Col Dave Middleton. “It certainly felt longer than two weeks and there wasn't room for a moment's rest during that time.”
The British had prepared to fly 5,000 civilians to safety but ended up taking out three times as many on RAF aircraft.
However, the operation was severely challenged when the soldiers’ military radios were delayed in getting into Kabul. “We didn't always have sufficient military comms,” said Major Jim Viney, deputy chief of staff for 16 Air Assault Brigade. “We did have some civilian Push-to-Talk radios, but there was insufficient for everyone and also clearly they provided only insecure communications.”
While they used military laptops to communicate back to headquarters in Britain these depended on the local networks still functioning.
“We were reliant on Wi-Fi that had been established by contractors before those contractors left the airport,” said Major Viney. “We weren't sure how long the Wi-Fi was going to last. Mobile comms were unreliable given the infrastructure and the security situation. We had to rely on all those different means in a patchwork.”
With long distances to travel in and around the airport, the troops also had to purchase local vehicles and use discarded barbed wire and shipping containers.
It is also understood that officials had to engage with the Taliban to help with the evacuation, as the insurgents formed their own airport outer security cordon.
The Taliban allowed the evacuation to function unhindered with both sides aware it was in their mutual interest.
The soldiers put in a “Herculean effort” with little sleep and were confronted with distressing scenes, particularly when ISIS bombed the packed front gate, killing 182 people.
The webinar, titled “Op PITTING: The British Army’s Experience in the Evacuation of Kabul”, was told that supermarkets near the paratroopers’ home base in Colchester, England, bore “the biggest brunt” of demand for essential goods to be flown out.
They provided 300,000 litres of water, 3,000 nappies, 4,500 bottles of baby milk, 2,500 sanitary packs, 1,200 blankets, 1,500 colouring books with pencils and 50 large sunshades to shelter evacuees from the 40°C heat.
“This was an incredibly stressful and emotional period for everybody,” said Capt Jamie Robson of 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. “Nobody could have foreseen the intensity or the duration of the stress, in particular the scale of the crowd management challenges. The fact we were able to maintain this for days is really a testament to the resilience of the men and women in the brigade.”