WHEN Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this time last year it sparked the biggest evacuation since the end of World War Two.
In two short weeks Britain’s military managed to rescue an incredible 15,000 civilians from almost certain death at the hands of the country’s ruthless new rulers.
British forces helped to evacuate 15,000 from Afghanistan as the Taliban took controlCredit: Arthur Edwards / The Sun
Just 900 soldiers and flyers from the RAF saved nearly FIVE times more people than expected from the jaws of hell.
And 12 months on it can be revealed just how close the rescue mission came to total disaster.
In an exclusive interview, Captain Jamie Robson tells The Sun how 90 paratroopers — outnumbered 20 to one — helped save Kabul airport from being overrun.
Capt Robson, 29, Operations Officer for 2Para, arrived in Kabul in the early hours of August 15, the day the Taliban took control of the city.
The next morning, 30,000 civilians massed outside the international airport and thousands stormed through the perimeter.
Just 90 soldiers from 2Para and 200 US Marines stood between the crowd and catastrophe as part of Operation Pitting.
Capt Robson says: “It was incredible to see that thin line of paratroopers and US Marines standing there with a crowd of five or six thousand people staring at them and a runway in the middle.
“If the runway had not been held, had we not pushed the crowd back and reopened the runway, the whole operation would never have taken off.”
RAF Flt Lt Jimmy Langan had been sent with Royal Navy Petty Officer Ben Shread to take pictures and video of the Union Flag being lowered at the British Embassy.
Instead they found themselves in a mixture of zombie movie World War Z and scenes from the Wild West, where they witnessed the best and worst of humanity.
PO Shread recalls: “It was absolutely crazy. There were maybe 30,000 civilians outside of the airport, all pushing on to the airfield.
Petty Officer Ben Shread and Flight Lieutenant James Langan could not have foreseen the scale of the challenge troops were faced withCredit: Arthur Edwards / The Sun
“We didn’t know whether the Taliban were going to come and overrun us or whether we would be able to fight them off. There was so much bravery shown by our troops.”
The Paras’ heroism in holding the runway in the face of overwhelming odds allowed 800 more British troops to arrive and begin to process the thousands of civilians with links to the UK who were to be flown out.
But the hard-pressed British forces were faced with imposing order amid chaos as thousands of people with no connection to the UK tried to flee.
Flt Lt Langan, 36, says: “I was seeing medics, the youngest probably 19 years old, dealing with dead bodies.
“There were civilians dying in the heat, packed shoulder to shoulder.
“Minutes later we were putting guys on planes and watching them fly away, so happy that they got to start a new life.
“It was this constant juxtaposition of trauma with elation.”
On one of the planes were five-year-old twin girls Sana and Asna, wearing party dresses and sunglasses, who turned up with their mum and dad, Nooragha Hashim, who had worked as a military interpreter for British troops.
Young children were among those evacuated among the chaosCredit: Arthur Edwards / The Sun
PO Shread, 44, says: “To see those two little girls in their party dresses on the plane, flying out of what had become hell on earth towards a hopefully safer and better life in the UK summed up what we were doing out there.
“I was in tears as their plane took off. I have a little girl at home as well and she was six at the time so all my feelings came flooding out.”
Around the perimeter some desperate mothers threw their babies into the arms of soldiers.
Photos of former Red Devil_ with a tot in his arms went viral.
Capt Robson says: “Paratroopers are trained to be aggressive, to be able to attack a position at the end of the bayonet.
“Yet this operation saw them having to behave in a completely different manner and show unbelievable levels of restraint, compassion, kindness and empathy with the civilians.”
Capt James Robson says it was incredible the way troops kept their nerve in the chaosCredit: the sun
Troops on the ground in Kabul quickly realised they needed supplies for mothers and children.
Back home, at the Paras’ base in Colchester, Essex, a team of soldiers descended on the town’s shops to buy baby milk, nappies, colouring books and crayons to send to Afghanistan.
Capt Robson says: “It became apparent that loads of military rations were not going to help a young mother feed her three or four children.
“Anecdotally there were people in Colchester complaining that they couldn’t get any baby milk because we’d bought it all and sent it to Kabul.”
Flt Lt Langan recalls: “I was seeing British service personnel collapse and pass out in the heat while doing their jobs.
“Their uniforms were changing colour, they were so saturated with sweat. And they were often not eating because the guys were giving their food to evacuees and refugees.”
Taliban terrorists flooded into the city and manned checkpoints outside the airport following the decision by the US to pull their troops out of the country.
Capt Robson says: “For the more experienced soldiers who had spent the best part of their careers doing multiple tours of Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban, having friends killed by the Taliban, I think that was a surreal moment.
“It is a testament to their professionalism that I don’t recall a single incident where we had to move someone off the line because tension was going to overspill because they had a score to settle.”
The troops’ biggest fear was that a suicide bomber would be hidden among the crowds milling around the airport and the Baron Hotel where evacuees were processed.
On August 26 a bomb did go off, killing 150 civilians — including two Britons — and 13 US soldiers.
Ben Shread and Jimmy Langan would have been in the killing zone but minutes earlier they had been ordered to another part of the airport to take pictures of ex-Marine Pen Farthing, who had arrived with a pack of rescue dogs.
Flt Lt Langan says: “The road between the airport and the Baron Hotel had an incredible, putrid smell. People were so desperate to get out they were queuing in the sewer, packed in shoulder to shoulder, thousands of them.
“The BBC reported that a suicide bomber was going to attempt to blend in with passengers.
“We were thinking, ‘When is it going to happen? Is a plane going to detonate in the air? Are we going to be with the evacuees when they detonate?’.
“There was no way to stop and search every single person at every single point. It was impossible. We just had to go to work and take the risk that today could be the last day.”
One of the last evacuees out of Kabul was Muraal, a 26-year-old female captain serving in the Afghan National Army who faced almost certain death at the hands of the Taliban if she stayed.
Flt Lt Langan says: “She trained at the Defence Academy in the United Kingdom and was so scared to try to come to the air base with her family because the Taliban knew what she looked like.
“But we encouraged her to be brave, cover herself up and let her father do the talking at the Taliban checkpoint.
Evacuation planes were full to the brim with Afghans fleeing the TalibanCredit: Alamy
Flt Lt Langan, who has stayed in touch with Captain Muraal, nicknamed Murci, in the UK, adds: “I speak to her frequently.
“She and her father and sister have gone through an incredibly tumultuous period. They only got settled a couple of months ago.
“She intends to continue her education and is incredibly keen to assist the British government in whatever ways she can.
“The evacuees are incredibly patriotic. Murci had a picture of the Queen on her WhatsApp.”
PO Ben Shread says: “Before heading to Kabul people were saying we were just going to pour failure on futility.
“We’d lost the war in Afghanistan and were going to lose the evacuation because we were never going to be able to get as many people out as we wanted to.”
But his colleague Flt Lt Langan says: “We went to get 3,500 out.
Today there are 15,374 people who are free from torture and death, starting new lives in the United Kingdom, because of what the British did.
“There’s no way you can count that as a failure.
“It’s the proudest moment of my life.”
Terror group on the rise
By Edmund Fitton-Brown, ex-UK diplomat and Counter Extremism Project senior adviser
THE sudden withdrawal of Western troops from Kabul has sparked a worrying resurgence of Islamic State in Afghanistan, as the Islamist organisation’s central command in Syria and Iraq smelled an opportunity.
Their leadership sent money to Afghanistan to recruit and rebuild the IS presence there.
Ironically, they were aided by their Taliban enemies, who released several hundred hardened IS fighters and commanders when they threw open the gates of the country’s jails as they took control.
Although they killed ex-IS leader Abu Omar Khorasani in his jail last September, we know at least one other former leader, Aslam Farooqi, initially escaped and re-joined IS.
With new funds and recruits, IS has started to gain the foothold and territory it craves in Afghanistan.
The murder of anti-IS cleric Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani inside a seminary in Kabul this week is further evidence of their growing strength in the country.
The brazen terror attack – carried out by a suicide bomber with explosives stuffed in his artificial leg – shows how they are now powerful and confident enough to strike at al-Qaeda’s Taliban protectors in their own capital.
IS does not need to take control of the country for there to be grave consequences for Britain and the West.
If they can control enough territory to run training camps for foreign fighters and act as a secure base beyond the reach of the West to plan and command overseas attacks, it will be able to export terror and bring bloodshed to our streets once more.
It doesn’t have the capability yet but indications are that IS numbers have recovered.
Without international help, the Taliban alone does not have the close air support needed to dislodge IS before it reaches its goal.
IS chiefs are confident of success.
The organisation has already established Afghanistan as the HQ of its central and south Asian regional network.
Its leaders have ambitions to use this base, beyond the reach of the UK, US and our allies, as a launch pad for attacks on the West.
Much has changed over the past year – but not for the better – and the consequences look ominous for us.
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