Afghans 'forgotten' by UK as report calls evacuation a disaster

Interpreter speaks out as MPs brand withdrawal from Afghanistan a 'betrayal'

British Army interpreter Jamal Barak has urged the UK to learn from a damning report into its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Photo: Jamal Barak
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A British Army interpreter who has campaigned for the UK to evacuate his family from Kabul says Britain is continuing to “forget” about the people left in Afghanistan.

It comes as a damning report, released on Tuesday by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, concluded the UK's withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “disaster and betrayal” of British allies that will damage the nation's interests for years to come.

The eight-month inquiry revealed the evacuation was hampered by a lack of leadership from senior politicians and civil servants.

Last year Jamal Barak successfully petitioned the UK government to allow his parents and brothers to be evacuated from Afghanistan after their initial request was refused.

He told The National that many interpreters are still trapped in Afghanistan and have been “totally forgotten” and is urging the government to learn from the report and take action to help them.

“I have family and colleagues who are still in Afghanistan waiting to get out. Many Afghan interpreters are still stranded, they keep being told they are not eligible to come to the UK,” he said.

“They helped the British government for years and now they are just being forgotten. The evacuation last August was a shambles and they left so many people behind. This report exposes what we have been saying for a long time.

“Now the people left there cannot work, the Taliban have seized their properties, they are facing constant death threats. It is heartbreaking. They have been totally forgotten about. The UK should be helping the people in Afghanistan who helped them over the last 20 years. They are in a really, really bad situation.”

In Tuesday's report, the committee criticised the Foreign Office for the “total absence” of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission despite knowing for 18 months that such an evacuation might be necessary.

This was compounded by the fact that there seemed to be no clear lines of leadership among political leaders, with decisions made on the basis of “untraceable and unaccountable political interventions,” the committee said in its report.

“The fact that the Foreign Office’s senior leaders were on holiday when Kabul fell marks a fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency,” the committee said.

The report was based on an eight-month inquiry during which the committee heard testimony from 20 witnesses and reviewed written evidence from 36 organisations.

“The UK’s part in this tragedy exposes a lack of seriousness in achieving coordination, a lack of clear decision-making, a lack of leadership and a lack of accountability,” the committee's Conservative chairman, Tom Tugendhat, said.

“While junior officials demonstrated courage and integrity, chaotic and arbitrary decision-making runs through this inquiry.

“Sadly, it may have cost many people the chance to leave Afghanistan, putting lives in danger.”

British members of Parliament are demanding the resignation of the Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Sir Philip Barton, over a “determination to avoid unearthing the facts”.

In August, Mr Barak, a former military interpreter who now lives in the UK, had pleaded with the authorities to help his father, Shista Gul, and family to leave Afghanistan over fears he would be killed.

Mr Gul had to go into hiding when the Taliban took control of Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, where he lived with his wife and five other sons.

He worked in a military compound in Helmand province for seven years as a gardener for the British Army, but the British government had refused him permission to be relocated to the UK.

His story is a similar one still facing many others in Afghanistan, Mr Barak said.

“The people still trapped there are just being ignored when they ask for help,” Mr Barak said.

“The government needs to act on these findings and continue to help the people still stranded out there who are in daily fear for their lives.”

Mr Barak came to the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme, because of his work as an interpreter with the British Army for eight years.

He was shot twice by the Taliban while working on missions and entering Taliban-held provinces with British troops.

His father's application for the Arap scheme was previously refused on the grounds he did not fit the criteria, because a gardener was not classed as a priority role despite him receiving several commendations from the British Army during his service.

Amy Richards, Director at Global Witness, said the UK is continuing to failure the people of Afghanistan.

“No one who was involved in the evacuation of Afghanistan last August will be surprised by the depiction of chaos, confusion and a total lack of leadership across Whitehall and, most particularly, at the top of the Foreign Office outlined in this report,” she said.

“What will be more surprising is the utter failure to plan for this, even as other countries did start making arrangements. We should make no bones about the catastrophic impact of this failure — Afghan people, many of whom worked alongside British forces and organisations, have lost their lives as a result, often in brutal and terrifying ways. Others remain in hiding and living in fear, cut adrift from support they were promised by Britain.

“What is not addressed in this report is the continued failure to meet our responsibilities. The government’s refugee schemes set up for Afghans have barely got off the ground. Visas are not being issued and the criteria are being tightened to bar many of those who were originally told they had a valid claim. As life gets harder for those in Afghanistan, Britain is further pulling up the drawbridge and letting down those who carried out brave acts of solidarity on our behalf over many years. We should be utterly ashamed by this.”

The government has defended its staff who worked “tirelessly” to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan in a two weeks.

“This was the biggest UK mission of its kind in generations and followed months of intensive planning and collaboration between UK government departments,” a spokesman said.

“We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal from Afghanistan and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine, including introducing new systems for managing correspondence and increasing senior oversight of our operational and diplomatic response.”

Updated: May 24, 2022, 2:41 PM