British prime minister Boris Johnson praised the “colossal exertions” of the UK armed forces in rescuing British and Afghan citizens from Afghanistan as some of the last UK military personnel to leave the country arrived in Oxfordshire on Sunday morning.
The soldiers and diplomats arrived amid an intense row about the evacuation effort, which the British government said had rescued 15,000 people in two weeks.
Vice-Admiral Sir Ben Key, chief of joint operations, said the military would have preferred to have had more time to bring more people out. The operation brought to the UK about 5,000 British nationals and 8,000 Afghans who had worked for the UK, as well as some other especially vulnerable people. However, the operation failed to rescue at least 1,000 people who were seeking to flee to the UK.
“We know that there are some really sad stories of people who have desperately tried to leave that we have ... been unsuccessful in evacuating,” Vice-Admiral Key said.
There was also controversy over how far UK military resources had been diverted on the last day of the mission to helping Pen Farthing, a former British serviceman, to load rescued animals on to a specially arranged flight.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy accused ministers of having been “completely unprepared” for the Afghanistan crisis. “It’s really an unparalleled moment of shame for this government that we’ve allowed it to come to this,” Ms Nandy told Sky News.
The last UK personnel left Kabul airport at 9.25pm Irish time on Saturday at the end of a 14-day operation, arriving at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire shortly before 9am on Sunday.
In a video uploaded on Twitter on Sunday morning, Mr Johnson praised the airlift, saying UK soldiers and officials had worked “around the clock to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions”.
“It’s thanks to their colossal exertions that this country has now processed, checked, vetted and airlifted more than 15,000 people to safety in less than two weeks,” he said.
However, there were widespread recriminations about why the process of rescuing the most vulnerable people had not started until it became clear in the middle of this month that Taliban forces were about to retake control of Kabul.
Gen Lord Richard Dannatt, a former head of the British army, pointed out on Times Radio that former senior officers had written an open letter in July warning that local staff such as interpreters would be at serious risk if the Taliban, who imposed a brutal form of Islamist government during their previous time in charge of the country, resumed control.
“It is unfathomable why it would appear that the government was asleep on watch,” Lord Dannatt said.
Johnny Mercer, a Conservative MP and former army officer, expressed his anger at ministers who he said had made it harder to resettle the UK’s “Afghan friends and partners” in the UK. “I’ve found it almost impossible to retain my composure as the killings have started,” he wrote in a piece for the Sunday Times.
Some of the most bitter disputes surrounded the influence on the airlift of a private charter flight hired to carry Mr Farthing, who had run a rescue centre for mistreated animals in Kabul, and about 200 dogs and cats.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace last week expressed frustration at calls for the UK military to help Farthing to leave with his animals.
However, the ministry of defence said on Friday that “on the direction of the defence secretary” clearance for the flight had been “sponsored by the UK government”, and the UK armed forces had helped him and the animals through the airport.
Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, criticised the military’s role in assisting the airlift for the animals. None of the staff who worked with Farthing left on the flight.
“We’ve just used a lot of troops to get in 200 dogs,” Tugendhat, who served as an army officer in Afghanistan, told LBC Radio. “Meanwhile my interpreter’s family are likely to be killed.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021