Afghanistan: why a visibly distressed government minister had to admit that ‘some people won’t get back’

As he described the rapidly unfolding events in Afghanistan on British radio, UK defence secretary Ben Wallace fought back tears when he conceded that some Afghan local staff “won’t get back” before a full-scale evacuation is completed. He said that he felt a “really deep part of regret” that it would not be possible to extract all Afghans eligible to leave for the UK and expressed his strong sense of moral responsibility towards Afghan local staff who had supported the British mission.

How could this happen? Who could be left behind?

The “lightning speed” of the Taliban’s advance fails to fully explain why so many western nations have been left scrambling to bring their former local Afghan staff to sanctuary. Interpreters and other locally engaged civilians (known as LECs) have been at risk for many years.

Interpreters themselves, but also veterans, journalists and other advocates have said so for a long time. The relocation should not have needed to happen at the 11th hour.

Ben Wallace struggles to control his sadness as he comments on the evacuation from Kabul.

In 2015, the Ministry of Defence published a “myth buster” contrasting media “claims” with “facts” on this matter. It denied that it has dismissed claims of intimidation in Afghanistan in order to avoid having to give sanctuary to interpreters. It responded by saying: “We have not found an intimidation case where the threat is such that we need to relocate the local staff to the UK to make them safe.”

As of February 2017, the UK’s Intimidation Investigation Unit had received a total of 401 claims of intimidation from Afghan interpreters and other local staff. However, none were relocated to the UK. Some were given “bespoke security advice”, including the recommendations to “not wear expensive or ‘loud’ clothes” and “discreetly check for IEDs (car bombs) before driving away”.

But a House of Commons report concluded in 2018 that “the Afghan Intimidation Scheme appears to go to considerable lengths to preclude the relocation to the UK of interpreters and other locally employed civilians who have reported threats and intimidation”. It also noted that, “Given our Government’s own stark assessment of the perilous Afghan security situation, the idea that [none] have faced threats and intimidation warranting their relocation to the UK is totally implausible.”

The Afghan relocation and assistance policy was finally launched in April 2021. This is the mechanism under which Afghan local staff can currently apply for sanctuary in the UK – replacing the dysfunctional intimidation policy.

When NATO started withdrawing from Afghanistan that same month, the UK promised to “accelerate the pace of relocations”. Despite this improvement, there are significant gaps between intentions and practice on the ground. Many at-risk people remain excluded from the policy and the acceleration of the backlogged cases has not moved fast enough.

As recently as the week before Kabul fell, the Home Office sent out a flurry of rejections to applicants who had previously been told they were eligible. They had sold their property, obtained documents, prepared to leave when they suddenly received a letter that “their presence in the UK would not be conducive to the public good”. Many of them had worked for several years for UK Armed Forces and their veteran colleagues responded with incredulity.

Wallace is not the only one who has cried over what is happening. I heard from former Afghan local staff already resettled in the UK who cried in desperation for family members still in Afghanistan. Despite reported cases where family members of Afghan interpreters were killed, the UK government has dragged its feet on helping family members left behind.

Limited change

Media exposure has resulted in change, but it has been haphazard and reactive. Interpreters at the British Embassy in Kabul were initially excluded from relocation because they were subcontracted rather than employed directly by the UK government. Abdicating responsibility by employing people through third parties is not done accidentally.

Only after the embassy interpreters reached out to the Sulha Alliance, and their plight was highlighted in the Times and the Daily Mail, were they offered relocation to the UK on July 31. All 21 are currently still in Afghanistan, fearing for their lives. None of them knows when they will be relocated.

Others who have received relocation offers as recently as in the last days have had no information about the next steps. Passport offices are closed and the local unit processing relocation applications is not responding to calls or emails.

On August 1, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Wallace confidently declared that: “Those coming to Britain know the truth. If you looked out for us, we will look after you.” To get to the truth, it may be better to ask those who won’t be coming to Britain any time soon.

The Conversation

Sara de Jong has received support for knowledge exchange activities from the UKRI Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) for her research on the claims to protection and rights by Afghan Locally Employed Civilians and their advocates. She is a founding member of the Sulha Alliance, which advocates for the protection of Afghan LECs.