Afghan evacuation is something nobody has experienced before, says British officer

A British officer working in Kabul has told of his pride at how UK troops have dealt with an unprecedented and complex situation in the Afghan capital.
Members of the British and US military engaged in the evacuation of people out of Kabul, AfghanistanMembers of the British and US military engaged in the evacuation of people out of Kabul, Afghanistan
Members of the British and US military engaged in the evacuation of people out of Kabul, Afghanistan

Lt Col Justin Baker, of 16 Air Assault Brigade, was speaking from Kabul on Sunday, as British armed forces had evacuated more than 5,000 people from Afghanistan since August 13.

Every passenger flying on a British aircraft goes to a passenger handling centre in Kabul where members of the Brigade have been working "tirelessly" on the evacuations, according to the MoD.

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Lt Col Baker said: "It is the operating environment here which is so complex that it is making the operating environment so challenging, I think this is something that nobody has experienced before.

"We are facing challenges that nobody has experiences for but I have been really impressed by how agile and adaptable that the whole force has been and how well they have coped with those challenges."

Pictures of desperate and fearful crowds trying to leave Afghanistan are among the distressing scenes which have been captured at Kabul airport in an area packed with Taliban militants.

By Sunday afternoon, Sir Laurie Bristow, the UK Ambassador to Afghanistan, tweeted from the evacuation handling centre: "It's a huge effort. So far we have managed to get over 5,000 people on to planes and in the last 14 hours alone we've managed to get a thousand people on their way. But there is still a huge amount of work to do."

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He thanked the soldiers, diplomats and other officials both in Kabul and abroad who are "working around the clock to get our British nationals, Afghan colleagues and Embassy staff to safety".

The Brigade is aiming to provide "as much comfort and reassurance as possible" to those people who are entitled to leave as they "are going through a really stressful time", said Lt Col Baker.

His colleague Major Rob Scharick, also of of 16 Air Assault Brigade, said: "I think as a Brigade we have done the best we possibly can do.

"We are trained to deploy at short notice to complex environments and to tackle a range of functions from war fighting to something like this, a non-combatant evacuation operation.

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"I am amazed with the way, how the guys have dealt with the challenges of doing it."

He said the Brigade is "taking the people from the streets of Kabul who have formed up outside" and then determining whether they are eligible to leave as British citizens or eligible under the Afghan relocation assistance programme.

Further checks are carried out by Foreign Office officials before they are moved to the airport to travel to the UK.

Armed Forces minister James Heappey said: "Scenes of the crush in crowd yesterday were desperate.

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"Amidst all that chaos, young British soldiers are showing themselves to be every bit as tough & professional as we'd expect. But it's their compassion that's really shining through."

His comments come after journalist Jane Ferguson praised the British military at Kabul airport for its "breathtaking levels of toughness, professionalism and - rare in war times I must say - compassion."

Ms Ferguson, a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, tweeted: "I've been moved to tears by their actions, diving into dangerous crowds to pull visa-holders into the base guarding sleeping women and children, helping them find the right transportation to the US air strip for their flights, pulling their own food out of their pockets and handing it to refugees in need, sleeping out on the cement, little supplies, parched in the sun.

"There are young men here who have lost their voices days ago, sunburned faces, dusty uniforms, exhausted, still working to help people in what is a humanitarian mission few soldiers are really prepared for....

She said that one soldier had told her "we want to help people too" as she recalled a moment of kindness.