EXPERT ADVICE/PERSPECTIVE — Two years ago, on August 28, 2021, the last British evacuation flight took off from Kabul airport. Thus ended 20 years of British effort in Afghanistan. Some were ineffective, but others were inspiring. It’s a major success story but with a decidedly bitter aftertaste.
Just before midnight on Saturday, August 14, 2021, a long line of tan-colored 4×4 vehicles rolled out of a high-walled fortress in Logar province, about 35 miles south of Kabul. The vehicles contained some 300 soldiers from the Afghan Special Police Task Force 333 (CF333). It was not about the Afghan army which was evaporating and fleeing the Advancement of the Taliban. Quite the contrary. They were in uniform and fully armed. It was a trained and funded British unit ‘marching to the sound of guns’. Ignoring direct threats from the Taliban, they headed for Kabul to help defend their capital.
On the morning of August 15, as the evacuation from Kabul Airport began, the Commanding Officer (CO) and a squadron of about 40 troops were asked to deploy to the Baron Hotel at Kabul Airport. Kabul to ensure the protection of British passport holders. The 17thth, three of them were evacuated and the remaining 37 were told by British troops that their help was no longer needed. Meanwhile, two other squadrons of CF333s were ordered to patrol the east end of the city, while the rest of the squadron defended the police special units headquarters. In the evening, the 333 was the last unit made up of Afghan soldiers still loyal to a regime whose president had fled in ignominy. Shortly before midnight, they were advised to flee. Some went to the airport. A few managed to get on the plane.
Their latest commander estimates that several dozen members of CF333 have reached the UK and that about double that number are still in Afghanistan. Most of the 333 abandoned survivors are hiding. Others fled to Pakistan, Iran and beyond. One of them recently arrived from France by small boat. Those who remain in Afghanistan are in constant danger.
Several 333 soldiers were murdered by the Taliban. Some of their deaths have been publicized such as the case of Noor Agha, a CF333 sniper, murdered in front of his wife and children. A more recent example is that of Riaz Ahmedzai, beaten down in front of his house. Another sniper was murdered in September 2021. The number of deaths will continue to increase over the years and fewer and fewer people will attract the interest of the press.
I have just received a refusal decision addressed to one of the senior officers of CF333 by the UK Government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). Clearly, those responsible for deciding the fate of this man and his family have no idea what CF333 was. How is it possible ? Its history dates back to the frenetic weeks following 9/11; twenty-two years ago.
The CF333 is one of the British government’s greatest achievements in Afghanistan. Its origins go back to when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) attended a United Nations conference in Geneva in late 2001 and proposed to lead the international community’s counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan.
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Back in London, there was a moment of apprehension at the scale of the undertaking. One of the more ambitious ideas was the creation of an Afghan Special Counter-Narcotics Force (ASNF), now known as CF333. The central idea was that it should only include Afghans. It should be Afghan-led and report to the Afghan Ministry of Interior. Only funding and training should come from the UK. Its existence and funding were informed in the British Parliament.
The strength was created in double time. It included 150 men led by an inspirational brigadier who had fought under the Soviets against the mujahideen. Initially, it had about thirty Toyota all-terrain vehicles, soon supplemented by three Mi17 helicopters built in Ukraine. Two years later, at the request of the FCO, its size was doubled to 300 people (including women) plus six helicopters. Soon it earned a reputation as the best special forces unit in all of Afghanistan. This video The photo of US General Nicholson visiting CF333 at its base in Logar is a painful sight in light of what was to come.
The Brigadier’s whole philosophy, learned painfully during the failed Soviet presence in Afghanistan, was that the role of 333 was to help the people by freeing them from the vicious and corrupt bondage of opium growers and traffickers. He organized educational sessions on the dangers of drugs and created a national network of supporters. Each time 333 arrived in a village, they were welcomed, even celebrated. This was because they were obviously Afghans and not foreign soldiers. The sight of a disciplined Afghan force was a source of considerable pride among a population that associated the gunmen with violent and rapacious behavior. Later, the 333 developed sophisticated counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency capabilities.
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ARAP officials may have seen that the recent candidate had not worked for the British government but for the Afghan interior ministry. So her application apparently went straight into the “Rejected” pile. If they had had any knowledge of the origins of this force, they would have understood that its Afghan identity was the raison d’etre of what was still an entirely British creation of the government. Perhaps that is why hundreds of CF333 soldiers and their families are still in mortal danger and the death toll continues to rise.
All of this is a far cry from the days when all of the British government’s senior ministers and generals would visit 333 Fort as part of their visit to Afghanistan, always ending with a speech about the Kingdom’s long-term commitment. United in Afghanistan. Today, this once proud unit is dispersed. The luckiest are the pizza deliverers in Liverpool or Exeter. Others live in fear in Afghanistan after destroying or burying their unit’s badges, honors and medals from the proudest days of their lives.
My close association with 333 ended in 2008. However, in January 2021 (seven months before the evacuation), I realized that the likely outcome of the Doha Accords (the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban) would put the men of CF333 in particular danger. . I wrote to senior officials at the newly merged Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and sent a copy to the Ambassador in Kabul suggesting it was not too early to prepare for the security of the 333 people to which we had a duty of care. My email concluded: “We can all see the trajectory of events in Afghanistan and I would advocate for people to be relocated to the UK now or soon, rather than waiting for an emergency. We don’t want planes landing in Kabul at a time when the Taliban could overrun the streets of the city.”
My suggestion went unheeded, but it is not too late for the FCDO to intervene in the ARAP process and ensure that CF333 applicants are quickly brought to safety in the UK.
A participatory fund was set up to support CF333 members.
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