‘Please help us – the Taliban are hunting those who worked for the British’: They were left behind when the last planes took off and now these brave Afghans have been forced to flee to Pakistan, as RICHARD PENDLEBURY reveals
This is what defeat looks like.
In the small waiting area outside the office of a refugee charity that overlooks the railway line between Peshawar and Karachi, two exhausted families shelter from the sun. One of them is led by Khair Muhammad Yaqoobi.
He shows me a document on his phone. It is a British visa application for him and his wife and five children, addressed to the UK embassy in Kabul and dated July 21, 2021 – less than a month before the city fell to the Taliban.
A covering letter explains that Mr Yaqoobi had worked for the British-founded firm Global Strategies Group as a security officer at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
In the small waiting area outside the office of a refugee charity that overlooks the railway line between Peshawar and Karachi, two exhausted families shelter from the sun. One of them is led by Khair Muhammad Yaqoobi (right)
That is where the calamity-defining scenes of panic and death unfolded last month during the mass evacuation of Westerners and Afghans who had reason to fear the change of regime.
The letter was written by one of his former managers, a former Australian Army soldier called Stephen Hull.
In the circumstances it is worth quoting at length: ‘Khair Muhammad Yaqoobi’s employment oftentimes exposed him to personally dangerous situations because of his support of the UK.
‘On frequent occasions, Khair Muhammad Yaqoobi, while performing in his official capacity … was the target of ridicule, harassment, and life-threatening circumstances.
‘As a security team member, Khair Muhammad Yaqoobi dutifully and faithfully ensured that the safety and interests of UK personnel and property were put at the forefront as he protected and helped facilitate these Government programs.’
The letter concludes: ‘Based on his years of proven dedicated support to the UK Government and due to the threats that he faced and currently faces, I see him eligible to apply for the visa program.’
Last night Mr Hull said: ‘I know him. I have been in contact with him for three months. It has been an extremely difficult few months.’
It certainly has. The letter arrived too late and Mr Yaqoobi was left behind.
The 38-year-old Tajik was just one of scores of Afghan former employees of Global Strategies, a company which reportedly ceased trading in 2017 after doing tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds of Afghan-related business.
Mr Yaqoobi started working for for the British-founded firm Global Strategies Group as a driver but was promoted to security officer and assigned to protect Kabul airport. Above: His ID card
Mr Yaqoobi’s case was very unlike that of the 150 stray Afghan dogs under the care of the Nowzad animal charity run by former British serviceman ‘Pen’ Farthing which were evacuated by air to the UK. Or the 68 Nowzad staff and their families that the Foreign Office arranged to be taken to Pakistan.
Global Strategies was not Mr Yaqoobi’s only Western employer. He shows me his staff pass for Armstrong Aviation Development Services, a firm registered in London, which closed in 2016.
Another laminated pass confirms he was also once employed by the US Department of State’s ‘Justice Sector Supporting Program’.
Taken together these documents are a potential capital crime in today’s Afghanistan.
When Kabul fell Mr Yaqoobi sent his wife and children to what he thought would be the safety of the ‘undefeated’ Panjshir Valley, only to see the Taliban claim to have taken it over.
Meanwhile, he and his brother and nephews crossed into Pakistan via Kandahar, having been on the road for days as fugitives.
‘In Kabul I would be living underground still,’ he tells me.
‘We were left behind by our employers.
‘I came to this office to get my refugee card, but they said “Come back in 20 days”.
‘We have no money, no medicine (he is suffering from an injury sustained in a terrorist explosion in 2015). It is very bad.’
The other family, of 12 adults and children, are led by Nasra Tallah, 36. His sister-in-law is cradling a baby, her features hidden beneath a burka.
Mr Tallah speaks good English – ‘I learned it from the movies’ – and worked as an interpreter and gate guard for Western security companies, including the British-registered firm Strategic Security Solutions International.
A week ago he and his family fled by road to the Pakistani border. It was a hard and frightening journey.
At a Taliban checkpoint Mr Tallah was challenged by a fighter: ‘He asked me “Why are you leaving your country for Pakistan? Tell me, what is the reason”?’
Mr Tallah dared not say, of course. It was only by claiming his son, who was seriously – and obviously – brain-damaged in a car accident, needed medical care that he got through.
‘Many times we have called at the UN Refugee Agency office but heard nothing.
‘They say they will call us but they don’t. We are desperate. We are all sleeping on the floor of a room which is meant for one person.’
But it is impossible for him to go home: ‘The Taliban are searching for guys (like me) who worked for the British and Americans.’
His family have escaped with their lives, but nothing else.
Now they are stranded in a country which does not want them; a country which has played a unique and ambiguous role in Afghanistan’s last two, bloody, decades.
The blame game has been raging in Washington and London.
But much finger-pointing has been directed at Islamabad, which has received tens of billions of dollars of US military and financial aid since 9/11. Whose side were they on?
A member of the Taliban forces points his gun at protesters as they shout slogans during an anti-Pakistan protest, near the Pakistan embassy in Kabul
Since the Taliban’s fall in 2001 it was Pakistan, its critics say, that has done most – covertly – to sustain the extremist movement and allow it the chance to return to power.
More specifically, they allege that the Taliban was the creation and foreign policy instrument of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s formidable and ubiquitous spy network.
In Kabul those opposed to the Taliban’s return certainly believe this to be so.
At a demonstration outside the Pakistan embassy last Tuesday, protesters – led by female Afghans – chanted ‘death to Pakistan’ and ‘death to the ISI’ before Taliban fighters opened fire.
Pakistani military drones are reported to have aided the Taliban in securing the Panjshir from the National Resistance Front and were even involved – allegedly – in the killing of a journalist in the valley.
Mr Yaqoobi’s situation – he is sleeping on the streets – is a far cry from when a friend who worked for Global helped him secure the offer of a salary a hundred times greater than the ‘pocket money’ he earned as an apprentice gem trader.
‘But I knew there would be danger,’ he said. ‘Before that I had been invisible to the Taliban. Now I would become a target.’
This was brought home to him by the training he was given: ‘Do not tell anyone what you really do. Do not wear your uniform between home and work. Be careful of your children as they might be kidnapped.’
He started working for Global as a driver but was promoted to security officer and assigned to protect Kabul airport.
When Armstrong Aviation took over the airfield contract Mr Yaqoobi worked for them too. Then he moved to the organisation run by the State Department.
Which is what he was doing when a suicide car-bomber struck at a base on the road to Jalalabad.
The blast killed two of his colleagues and injured several others and demolished the guard room in which Mr Yaqoobi was sitting, leaving him unconscious under the wreckage.
After the blast his family persuaded him to give up his job. But by then he had a legacy of ‘collaboration’ and he knew he was in growing danger.
One of his Global colleagues told him Mr Hull was trying to help his old staff get out of the country. ‘I found him on Facebook and sent him a message,’ he said.
‘He remembered me and sent me a letter of recommendation. I used it to apply to the UK and US for a special visa. I got no reply.
‘So I went to the UK embassy in Kabul two or three times but the guard would not let me through because I did not have an appointment.’
Then on August 15 the Taliban entered the city and the stampede to the airport began.
‘That was the day I made a fire and burned all my paper documents on it,’ Mr Yaqoobi told me. Then he sent his wife and children to the Panjshir Valley and went into hiding.
He soon became aware that the Taliban were looking for men like him – ‘traitors’ who had worked for the foreigners.
Twice he went to the airport but his passport had expired and he could not get through the final Taliban cordon.
The second occasion was on August 26 when two Islamic State suicide bombs exploded near the Abbey Gate killing as many as 170 people, including 13 US service personnel.
Mr Yaqoobi says he was 400 yards from the blast: ‘I had never seen anything like it before … the parts of bodies. Hundreds of people died.’
And one of them was his cousin Maneeja, a doctor and mother of four from Jalalabad. ‘I saw her body,’ says Mr Yaqoobi.
‘When I told my wife what had happened she begged me to stop going to the airport for the sake of our children.’
After reaching Pakistan he heard that the Panjshir had fallen. ‘I was in shock,’ he told me, his eyes full of tears.
‘Afghanistan was in shock. I cannot sleep for thinking about them.’
He has tried to enter the UK High Commission here in Islamabad but has been turned away because he has no refugee papers yet and, again, no appointment.
And so, for the time being, home is a spot beside the railway line in Golra where you find so many of the losers in this latest episode of the Great Game, the name given to the long-running confrontation between the world’s superpowers over the region.
As I was writing this last night, more WhatsApp messages from him arrived.
‘Sir,’ one began. ‘I want your fast cooperation please. Because my family (is still) in the battle in Afghanistan.’
We have taken a pack of stray dogs from Afghanistan. The question now is: will we also take Mr Yaqoobi and his family – if they can escape from Panjshir?
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