Peter Robinson: We in Northern Ireland should understand the betrayal of the Afghan people, and welcome them here

I watched in dismay as one after another Afghan city was seized by the Taliban until inevitably they took over the capital, Kabul.

Friday, 20th August 2021, 10:48 am
Updated Saturday, 21st August 2021, 12:35 pm
Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, writes a column for the News Letter every other Friday

Then the horrendous news footage of fleeing Afghans clinging to the wheels of military transport planes as they sought to take off.

The sight of US gunships buzzing groups, fearful of being left to the mercy of the Taliban, on the runway so that their planes could take-off.

What message does this send about the authority and standing of the international coalition who get tossed out by a terrorist-supporting horde.

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Jeffrey Donaldson MP, Peter Robinson, then first minister of Northern Ireland, and Lord Maginnis with Afghan soldiers in the country on a visit in 2008. Mr Robinson writes now: "We and they know what it’s like to be left a prey to our adversaries"

Who would trust them in the future?

It was all predictable and predicted as soon as President Trump signalled his intent, and later President Biden waved the white flag.

The American-led forces were never going to stay long-term and of course, the day would come to depart, but the absolute need to prepare the ground cannot be date-led or subject to the demands of US domestic opinion.

When an invasion occurs, those who take that decision, carry the responsibility to ensure that when the task is completed, they depart leaving a political infrastructure along with a military and police capacity that is sufficiently skilled and experienced to maintain control.

The sacrifices of so many of our fellow citizens and the terrorised people of Afghanistan who gave their lives in the towns and countryside of Afghanistan cries out against those who carry the culpability for this distressing fiasco.

It is now over a decade since Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Lord Ken Maginnis and I travelled to Afghanistan to talk to the troops, both British and American, as well as the local Afghan Army and Police.

The lasting reflection, for me, is of the military complexes across the country, but particularly in Candahar where we stayed before travelling by military helicopter to the desert Camp Shorabak (then called Camp Bastion) in Helmand Province.

Similar bases at Bagram and posts across the country represented a colossal international presence.

The sheer strength, in both size and might, of the coalition military presence left one question unanswered; “How long would it take for the Afghans to build up their forces to the standard and competence needed to replace this presence?”

While we were in Afghanistan we met representatives of the Afghan National Army.

They were being trained by US and British soldiers including our own Royal Irish Regiment personnel.

Yet being given the best of training and being provided with the most sophisticated weaponry was only part of what would be required.

Much of the sophisticated weaponry delivered to the Afghan Army and Air Force required ongoing expert maintenance because of its complexity. That expertise was not available locally, or at least not sufficiently available. It required a continuing presence to maintain the equipment.

There is a cultural difference between US and British soldiers on the one hand, and those in Afghanistan on the other hand.

Afghans don’t naturally fit into the central military command structure that our soldiers know and respect. Left to themselves it was prone to crumble.

There is also the, not inconsiderable, problem of loyalty. The Taliban were infiltrating both the police and the army. But reports continued to stream in of corruption by officers bloating their troop lists to add extra pay checks and skimming transit fees from the local population to move around the country.

The Afghan political leadership was more and more being regarded as weak and less than spectacular. The locals were losing faith in their political and military leaders.

Stories emerged of unused US weapons and military vehicles, that were provided to Afghan forces, ending up in Taliban hands. That tells its own story. But it is all academic now.

The facts are clear 300,000 Afghan soldiers, airmen and police buckled under the threat of 60,000 Taliban fighters. Billions of dollars spent on training, just melted away.

It now appears the Taliban have been engaging in republican-style media training. They tell the world that nobody need fear; women will not be mistreated, the media will enjoy freedom and there will be an amnesty for those who supported the government that relinquished power. Yes, and Brock’s are selling fireworks that can reach the moon.

Let’s just wait and see what those words are worth.

Those of us who live here should have understanding, sympathy, and compassion for the deceived people of Afghanistan.

We and they both know what it is like to be given countless assurances which are later trashed.

We and they both know what it is like to be left a prey to our adversaries.

We and they both know how it feels to demonstrate loyalty and not have it reciprocated.

We and they both know what it is to be betrayed.

All that we can do is play our part, while those who let them down seek to salve their consciences by re-settling those who want to, and can leave.

Northern Ireland should open its arms in welcome to those whose skin may differ, whose religion is not ours, whose way of life has changed forever but who need friends who understand their pain.

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