By Jamie Dettmer
The Taliban on Thursday briefly detained a former British soldier who was trying to evacuate overland 50 Afghan employees and 350 of their relatives, according to British media reports.
Ben Slater says he launched his own evacuation bid after British officials failed to approve visas in time for his staff, consisting mainly of women, to be airlifted out of Afghanistan last week.
The Taliban interrogated him for several hours but then released him, telling him he could cross the border with one assistant, but the rest of his staff had to remain in Afghanistan as none of them had British visas, he told British reporters.
“It’s a complete disaster, really. It’s disgusting. It’s beyond horrible,” Slater, chairman of a string of Kabul-based NGOs, told Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper. He and his employees spent two days at a hotel near a border checkpoint before he was detained and interrogated about members of his staff. Slater said he was also questioned about why some of the single women in his party were staying in the hotel without husbands.
A former soldier in Britain’s Royal Military Police, the 37-year-old Slater has been publicly highly critical of Britain’s Foreign Ministry for failing to approve visas in time for his staff to be airlifted out of Afghanistan last month. Slater said Thursday that he had kept British officials informed of his escape plan and asked in advance for them to facilitate a border crossing.
Midweek, before leaving Kabul, he told British reporters, “It’s going to be a long trip, and I am hoping on the other end that the FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] have got our visas sorted, or at least have spoken to the foreign affairs ministry in our destination country to allow access for our vulnerable staff.”
Growing anger toward Raab
Slater’s failed bid to get his staff out of Afghanistan is adding to a political furor in London over last month’s airlift operations by the British government, with pressure mounting on the country’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to resign. Critics, including the chairs of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committees, have accused Raab of a lack of preparation for the crisis.
He remained on a family vacation in the Mediterranean as the government of then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani collapsed and the Taliban neared Kabul.
“Dominic Raab should have resigned three times by now: for staying on the beach, for his department’s dismal failure to respond to thousands of cases of Afghans trying to get out of the country, and for the fact that potentially thousands of Afghans who helped our soldiers are now left stranded,” the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, said in a statement Wednesday.
Britain managed to airlift 17,000 people out of Afghanistan, 8,000 of them Afghans. Since the airlift concluded last week, British officials have suggested about 9,000 Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisals remained in the country, along with 100 to 200 British nationals, some dual citizens.
Opposition parties and some lawmakers from Britain’s ruling Conservatives estimate the number is much higher, and Raab acknowledged Wednesday he couldn’t give a “definitive” figure for the number of Afghans eligible to be resettled in Britain because they worked for British security forces. More than 5,000 emails from Afghans to the British Foreign Office are still to be read, he conceded when questioned in the House of Commons.
Slater’s failed bid to cross a land border with his staff also is adding to fears that the Taliban won’t keep promises made this week to Western leaders to allow Afghans to leave the country unhindered and unharmed. Taliban leaders have said Afghans who have passports and visas will be able to leave when commercial flights resume but have said little about Afghans leaving overland.
Britain dispatched one of its top diplomats, Simon Gass, to Doha on Monday for face-to-face talks with Taliban leaders about securing safe passage for British nationals and at-risk Afghans who remain in Afghanistan. Gass chairs Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee. Canadian diplomats also have met with the Taliban in Qatar to discuss issues of safe passage.
Neighboring countries have largely closed their borders. All the neighboring states remain reluctant to open their borders and have little appetite to see an influx of refugees. Pakistan already hosts 1.4 million documented Afghan refugees, and Iran 780,000. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans also are believed to live in both countries, and in recent years, both Iran and Pakistan have increased deportations.
The U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has urged Afghanistan’s neighbors to reopen their borders. “We’ve been intensifying our calls over the last week to neighboring countries to keep their borders open because of the gravity of the situation, and if any Afghans are unable to reach safety, that risks lives,” Kathryn Mahoney, UNHCR’s global spokesperson, told VOA this week.
UNHCR officials note 3.5 million Afghans are already displaced from their homes in Afghanistan, and worry that drought, rising unemployment and a banking collapse in that country could drive hundreds of thousands of people to the borders.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have indicated they are ready to serve as transit countries for Afghan refugees but also have said they don’t want large permanent settlements. Officials in Dushanbe and Tashkent say they don’t have the economic resources to cope. They also fear complicating their relations with Afghanistan’s new rulers, say Western diplomats.
This week, The Wall Street Journal reported the Uzbeks are pressing Washington to transport out of Uzbekistan a group of Afghan military pilots who fled to Tashkent. Uzbekistan remains closed, according to the country’s Foreign Ministry. Tajikistan may allow some entry after the country’s Independence Day celebration on September 20.
After a five-hour meeting, interior ministers from the European Union’s 27 member states agreed Tuesday that the bloc should offer financial support for Afghanistan’s neighbors to manage the refugee crisis at their borders. There was no confirmation about how much money the bloc is considering, but privately officials say the number being considered is 1 billion euros.
EU national leaders, as well as the European Commission, are fearful the continent could see a massive influx of Afghan refugees and a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis that roiled Europe politically and fueled the rise of populist nationalist parties. The refugees came not only from Syria but Iraq, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa.
The offer of large payments to Afghanistan’s neighbors would be modeled on the agreement the EU struck with Turkey in 2016 to shelter refugees, while at the same time helping to block them from traveling to EU countries.
It isn’t clear whether Afghanistan’s neighbors will accept such a deal. Pakistan’s national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, appeared scornful Wednesday of the EU’s plan.
“We house over 4 million Afghan refugees, this when the conversation in the West is about five more refugees is too many,” he told European broadcasters. He has been urging Western powers to engage politically with the Taliban and offer them financial support to prevent a refugee crisis.