Baron Richards of Herstmonceux is a former Chief of the Defence Staff.
We have all just witnessed the rapid collapse of the Afghan Government and the desperate attempts of our Armed Forces to evacuate both British Nationals and those Afghans who worked most closely with us throughout the campaign.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the team running the evacuation, many have been left behind. Their urgent pleas for help now fill the inboxes and WhatsApp feeds of many an Afghan Veteran. I am informed that last week the Ministry of Defence crisis box had 40,000 emails to process, and was receiving them at the rate of 10,000 a day.
Now that we no longer have a presence on the ground, helping those left behind is a challenging task and one that we appear to have been slow to start. The Foreign Secretary’s visit to the region is a positive, if belated, step in the right direction but there is much more that could be done now. Here are some suggestions.
The Government needs to communicate much more effectively with those left in Afghanistan. Understandably, perhaps, its media statements have been focused on the domestic audience, but there is an urgent need to provide reassurance to the many Afghans who are now trapped and fear for their lives.
This not difficult to do, doing it would show a nervous community that we are looking to help them. A page on the Government website in English, Dari and Pashtu would be a good start.
There appears to be no central command and control node that brings together the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the MoD and the Home Office to which Afghans can communicate and from which practical solutions to their problems can be devised.
This is a major omission. It is a symptom of a wider command and control issue that lies at the heart of the slow and poorly planned national response to Donald Trump’s original decision, let alone Joe Biden’s more recent one. The National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minster is responsible for agreeing and then directing national strategy. The National Security Adviser and his team is then responsible for ensuring its efficient and timely execution.
It’s quite clear that this mechanism is completely broken. It needs a major overhaul to turn it from a nineteenth century talking shop into a dynamic twenty first century cross-government coordination and communications centre that can handle domestic disasters such as Grenfell Tower as much as international crises of the kind we are witnessing so tragically and dangerously in Afghanistan.
Absent a crisis, its core business would be obliging a politically focused group of strategically inexperienced and sometimes uninterested politicians to think, prepare and plan long term and strategically.
Probably the hardest immediate nut to crack, which is also the most important, is the lack of documentation of those who still need to be evacuated. Many do not have passports and fewer have visas. It appears that we are reluctant to issue letters of authority or electronic visas without biometric enrolment (fingerprints and photos), and without such documents neighbouring countries will not let them pass for they fear ending up with yet more Afghan refugees. Yet, currently, biometric enrolment in Afghanistan is not possible.
Hopefully, the Foreign Secretary’s trip will begin to unlock this circular problem, but the solution will also require us to take some risk on the quality of documentation needed for onward travel to the UK.
Finally, when those who have been left behind, because of the rapid collapse of the last Afghan Government and the limited time available for the evacuation, finally make it to the UK it would seem to compound an injustice to invite them to join the back of the queue for resettlement assistance. Hopefully, Victoria Atkins already has this issue in her sights.
It is clear that we knew early in the evacuation, and most likely before, that good people would get left behind. The Defence Secretary admitted this during an interview on August 21st. But it is also clear that we then failed to adequately prepare the ground, particularly with neighbouring countries, to help those not evacuated. We are in catch-up mode. Time is short, but it is still not too late to put things right. Failure will create a long running sore with equally long running political reverberations.