Britain promised to move heaven and earth for all who helped us in Afghanistan. It wasn’t true


Dan Jarvis

The UK is shirking its responsibility – and by losing focus on that unstable country, is putting us at risk all over againThu 9 Mar 2023 08.00 GMT

Why does Afghanistan matter? It matters to me because I fought there. Lost friends there. From a remote base in Helmand, I served alongside Afghans who I first worried might kill us, but then learned to trust with my life. Although that feels a long time ago and a long way away, I think about it every day.

Eighteen months ago, the Taliban’s victory ended everything we were fighting for in Afghanistan. Ukraine then provided the perfect excuse to policymakers already eager to forget the trauma of that failure. Ukraine is colossally important – but a year on from Russia’s invasion, we forget Afghanistan at our peril.

The first reason is simple morality. We have a responsibility to those suffering in Afghanistan – particularly those who risked all for us.

Second, having invested £27.7bn and 457 lives, we should preserve what we can. Because despite all the waste, the last 20 years have seen infant mortality halve and education and infrastructure improve considerably. But the greatest argument is our own interest.

The risk is high. Afghanistan is already a greater source of instability and a renewed safe haven for international extremism. That includes the Pakistani Taliban, who aim to take over that nuclear-armed state just as their brethren took over Afghanistan.

Our policy reflects too little of this. The official line is enduring commitment, and promises to move heaven and earth for those most in danger. But in practice Afghanistan is being swept under the carpet. That is most starkly evident in reported plans to slash our Afghan aid budget, even as need soars.

At a personal level, two schemes – the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS) and Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) – were meant to help the thousands who didn’t get out, despite the heroic Operation Pitting to evacuate British nationals and eligible Afghans. But they have been so hampered by conditions, bureaucracy and delay that they are effectively dysfunctional.

Taliban fighters stand guard as female students arrive for entrance exams at Kabul University, October 2022.
‘We should engage with Afghans. Yes, including the Taliban – within tight limits.’ Taliban fighters stand guard as female students arrive for entrance exams at Kabul University, October 2022. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The damning result is that, 18 months on, not a single person has left Afghanistan under ACRS under pathway 3, open to those at-risk individuals who worked for or were affiliated with the British government. Not one. Arap has relocated 12,000 people – but more than half left before the final UK withdrawal. Contrast that with the 220,000 UK visas so far granted to Ukrainians months after the invasion.

Afghans who served and sacrificed alongside me are desperate – from the soldier who rescued an injured British officer but has waited more than a year for a decision, to the captain with seven family members executed, who was rejected outright.

Both schemes increasingly feel like unobtainable prizes dangled in front of desperate people. But even if we wanted to act, what could we do?

First, we can carefully, quickly give sanctuary to those we worked with – and to our fair share of the many facing imminent danger even without a direct foreign link.

Second, ministers must maintain our aid and diplomacy. We should assess where aid might empower the Taliban, which might mean some difficult choices. But we must not walk away, and we should commission a credible, big-hitting policy lead – a David Miliband or Rory Stewart.

Third, we should engage with relevant powers – the US, but also China, Pakistan and others. I’m sceptical the Taliban will listen, but we need to avoid conflict-fuelling rivalries and build consensus that stability is in everyone’s interests.

Lastly, we should engage with Afghans. Yes, including the Taliban – within tight limits. The hard reality is that they currently appear incapable of meaningful compromise. We should always leave the door open, but we should be extremely careful about legitimising them until that changes.

That reflects a critical point. Amid all the upheaval, our strategic interest remains fundamentally unchanged: an Afghanistan, without a long-term foreign presence, that does not incubate instability or international terrorism.

Durably achieving that requires a pluralistic government that avoids large-scale kleptocracy or abuses – the key (though not only) drivers of conflict and collapse after 2001. A basic level of democratic power-sharing, justice and rights is not idealism: indeed, the failure to seriously prioritise them was the most important reason we failed.

That means we should convene scattered Afghan civil society and political actors, as well as building up capacity and institutions as far as possible, to lay the foundation for an eventual transition to democratic pluralism when the opportunity arises again.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman

That may sound like wishful thinking. It may indeed require longer-term horizons. But the Taliban are repeating many of the exclusive, repressive mistakes of those they defeated. They already face internal conflict and souring regional relations. They are also less monolithic than many assume. We should not fuel conflict, but we should not assume the new status quo will last or that compromise will always be impossible.

Above all, we should stop repeating mistakes ourselves – both the post-1992 abandonment and the disastrous short-termism and misplaced objectives after 2001. It may be a lot harder now than it once was, but the right path remains the same. It is time we finally took it.

There is an Afghan saying: “bradar ba bradar, essobesh barabar”. Roughly translated, it means: “Between friends, the account should be settled”.

We still owe a debt – not just to Afghans, but to ourselves. We must not forget it.

  • Dan Jarvis MBE is Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former major in the Parachute Regiment
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