'Global Britain' has failed Afghan interpreters


The British Government's exit plan has led to Afghan interpreters feeling unsafe and left behind

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Image by Sgt Martin Downs (RAF),Crown Copyright

By Ed Halford

As the fall of Kabul vanishes from the newspapers’ front pages and the Sky News notifications exposing the humiliating withdrawal become less frequent, the interpreters who assisted the NATO forces hide away. Moving from ‘house to house’, they seek to avoid becoming the latest victims of the Taliban’s hit-list. Unfortunately, a particular strategy cannot be blamed for the carnage in Kabul. Instead, the major problem with the chaotic withdrawal was the lack of a strategy. Afghans, pivotal to the Allied missions conducted since 2001, now face the reality of hiding away in their own homeland. Britain has a moral obligation to provide refuge to Afghan interpreters and their families, as for them it is more than a question of morality. Their lives depend on it.

Contrary to the Taliban’s insistence that their regime would not extract “revenge” from Afghans who chose to help NATO forces, the departure of US and British forces triggered the start of the Taliban’s mission to hunt down interpreters and their families. The UN has been informed by a Norwegian intelligence document (RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses) that anyone perceived as a “collaborator” has a ‘target on their back’. The British evacuations were successful in helping 15,000 flee the country from 14 August, although this number largely comprises British nationals.

What is not in doubt is the bravery and courage shown by the British military personnel, who selflessly helped Afghans make their way past the intimidating Taliban checkpoints. They held their nerve and remained resolute in an environment vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Theresa May was absolutely right to proclaim to the House of Commons “the politicians sent them there, the politicians decided to withdraw, the politicians must be responsible for the consequences”. However, the UK Government has failed to fulfil its responsibilities to the Afghan interpreters who showed faith in our military expertise, and they are the ones experiencing the consequences of a botched exit plan.

The creation of the ARAP scheme (the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) is nearly an exact carbon-copy of David Cameron’s 2015 scheme for Syrian refugees; refugees he believed “Britain has a moral responsibility to help”. ARAP’s main downfall is its inability to reach out to those British interpreters in hiding, and its failure to process applications quickly. Despite MP Tobias Ellwood telling the Foreign Affairs Commit - tee that “each day they remain in the country the risk of them not making it out increases,” the interpreters’ chances of escaping the Taliban’s wrath have been severely hindered by the Home Office’s checks, which are reportedly delaying admission into the UK by up to a year.

President Biden’s determination not to amend the 31 August deadline for removing troops heavily contributed towards the Afghan crisis becoming a breaking point for the UK Government’s ‘Global Britain’ vision.

Unilateral action was never realistically feasible, although Biden’s reluctance to delay the withdrawal has left the British Government with a new dilemma and Afghan interpreters isolated. While the Taliban continues to execute interpreters, it has been estimated that there remain 850 people eligible for ARAP stranded. To make matters worse, the UK Government’s recent data breach, in which email addresses and photos of 250 Afghan interpreters were released, has severely compromised the hiding locations of interpreters.

It is very telling that war veterans who spent time with interpreters themselves, like MPs Johnny Mercer and Tom Tugendhat, have not held back from criticising Britain’s response to the crisis. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today, Mercer told listeners that “the reality is we’ve left the vast, vast majority of our interpreters behind”.

So as the country’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda lies in tatters, the fortunes of individual interpreters have largely depended on the heroic actions of individuals. Both individuals in high places, and those with no specific responsibility to the Afghan people.

Laurie Bristow, Afghanistan’s British Ambassador, is a prime example of someone who utilised his position of power to aid those Afghans we are all indebted to. As members of the British embassy scurried onto departing planes, Bristow chose to stay behind in the airport and process visa applications. Pieces of paper integral to saving lives. While in the UK, councillor Carolyn Webster has reached out to interpreters across Afghanistan and has personally engineered escapes from the Taliban by appealing to the ARAP.

As a student, you can find yourself asking during crises of international proportions “what can I do?” It is easy to feel insignificant, and there is no point kidding yourself that sharing an infographic is going to make a tangible difference. However, you can still make a meaningful impact by donating to a charity such as Afghan Aid, or by dropping off an item of un - wanted clothing at the York Mosque.

The British Government may have failed in keeping their responsibilities to the Afghan interpreters, but as the vision of ‘Global Britain’ flounders, it is up to us all to ensure the people of Afghanistan are not alone