UK forces evacuating people from Afghanistan feared they ‘may not return home’

Operation Pitting helped evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan in 2021 (LPhot Ben Shread/MoD)
Operation Pitting helped evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan in 2021 (LPhot Ben Shread/MoD)

Armed forces personnel have spoken of their fear that they might not return home from Afghanistan as they worked in chaotic conditions during the allied withdrawal nearly two years ago.

The Taliban seized power in a lightning offensive across the Central Asia country in August 2021 as US and Nato troops were in the final weeks of their withdrawal from the country after two decades of war.

In a three-part Channel 4 series titled Evacuation, British military personnel open up about their experience of assisting thousands of British passport holders, embassy staff and vulnerable Afghans during Operation Pitting.

The operation saw members of the armed forces, along with Border Force and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff, evacuate more than 15,000 people to the UK in just over sixteen days.

In candid interviews, the servicemen and women open up about the desperation they encountered among those looking to flee, of being surrounded by Taliban forces as they worked and the horrors of dealing with the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack.

As the Taliban encircled Kabul, one lieutenant colonel from UK Joint Force Headquarters, named only as Mike during the documentary, described the “surreal” experience of emptying bottles of wine and champagne at the British Embassy in the capital — a collection which was said to belong to the then-ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow.

He said he also chiselled the royal crest off the outside of the building.

A sergeant major in the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, known only as “Gaz”, said that, although the 2021 experience had been “completely different” to his three previous combat tours of Afghanistan, it was “harder”, both physically and mentally.

Diana Bird, a Royal Air Force Police squadron leader, said that, after terrified Afghans breached the fences of Kabul International Airport, she feared for her safety.

“The runway has people all over it, so nothing can take off or land that is big,” she said.

“The Taliban are surrounding the airport, so we aren’t driving out. There is nowhere to go, the country has fallen.

“I really thought, I may not be going home. This may have been a trip too far.”

Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan
British armed forces spoke to Channel 4 about their experience during the withdrawal and evacuation (MoD/PA)

With many of her team on their first overseas mission and not yet into their 20s, she described how she “basically took a sixth-form field trip to Kabul”.

Ms Bird recalled being brought to tears as Afghan women, who said they had received threatening letters from the Taliban, “begged for their lives” to be allowed on a repatriation flight.

She had to explain to them that “they did not meet our criteria to be helped”.

“You absolutely feel for each and every one of these people. But we couldn’t save everybody,” she said.

During Op Pitting, which began on August 13, British forces and officials processed those eligible for evacuation from the Baron Hotel near the capital’s airport.

Sgt Maj Gaz told his Paras team to “err on the side of compassion” when dealing with complex cases.

He added: “In quite vague terms, you had British foreign policy being dictated by a 19-year-old lance corporal at the front gate of the Baron hotel.”

While allied forces worked on evacuating people, the perimeter of the air field was struck by a suicide bomber on August 26, 2021.

Officials declared at the time that at least 13 US troops and 60 Afghan nationals were killed and more than 150 people were injured in a “complex attack” at the airport.

Lance corporal David Mitchell, describing the aftermath, said: “Legs (were) off, arms off, bits all over the walls. It looked like people had been put in a blender and tipped out everywhere.”

Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan
Operation Pitting worked while Kabul airport was surrounded by Taliban forces (MOD Crown copyright/PA Wire)

Sgt Maj Gaz said: “There was a little girl in a nice multi-coloured dress and she had been blown up on to the wall, dead.

“I’ve seen some grim stuff and that was grim.”

After the final civilian flights left Kabul, attention turned to destroying British military vehicles and other kit left behind to prevent the Taliban from using them.

Gaz recalled that “billions of pounds of equipment” was left on site after the troops flew home.

A number of those interviewed said the evacuation made them question Britain’s involvement in the two-decade effort in Afghanistan.

Some 456 British personnel lost their lives during the conflict and UK governments spent more than £22 billion on the deployment since the September 11, 2001, Islamist terror attack on the US sparked an allied invasion the following month.

LCpl Mitchell, giving his view on the Afghanistan war, said: “I just think that place is failed.

“If we were going to do that (evacuate), we should have done it 20 odd years ago…. Let the Taliban take over and just have it, basically.

“I just think we should have done that in the beginning if that is what we were going to do.

“A lot of us would have been saved as well. But I’m not a politician.”

Reflecting on the exit, an RAF wing commander, whose name was only given as Calvin, said: “My existence for 20 years, in some ways, felt as if it had been completely undone.

“Hadn’t we done a good job undoing 20 years worth of effort and activity in 14 days? You do what the democracy asks you to do and, at the end of it, it just raises the question about why.”

RAF Police’s Ms Bird said she was still “coming to terms with” her part in Op Pitting and said there were things she did that she “was not necessarily proud of”.

“But it was the right thing to do,” she added. “I think to a certain extent I’ve got to forgive myself as well, which will take time.”

Evacuation will begin airing on Channel 4 on Sunday July 2.