Duty Before Holiday

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Duty Before Holiday

The terrible situation in Afghanistan has, unsurprisingly, dominated the news in the past couple of weeks.  The rapid and frenzied US-led withdrawal from the country is seemingly a humiliation for the west.  Many have angrily questioned the sacrifices our military have endured for seemingly nothing.

The chaotic and distressing scenes at Kabul airport were hard to stomach. With haunting memories of the US withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, we saw frightened and desperate people, so scared of staying, that they risked their lives as they clambered onto aeroplanes and helicopters. With some tragically falling to their deaths.

Things rapidly escalated from bad to worse, with some people so desperate and scared of reprisals from the Taliban they passed their crying children to strangers over barbed wire fencing in a frantic attempt to get them to safety.

Then we had the terrible suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed over 170 men, women and children. Followed by reprisal drone strikes that also resulted in a number of innocent children among the collateral damage.

The deadline for the western military to leave was the end of August and sadly many people remain trapped with seemingly no path to safe refuge open to them.  There are many who, like the Afghan translators, risked their lives working with the western forces over the past 20 years, who will now be living in constant fear of being identified and brutally “punished” by the Taliban.

The region is now more unstable and hostile than ever before and US forces have seemingly left $billions worth of military equipment behind, including 75,000 vehicles, 200 airplanes and helicopters and 600,000 small arms and light weapons.  Indeed, it has been said the Taliban now has more Black Hawk helicopters than 85 per cent of the countries in the world.

To say this is a serious crisis is an understatement, so it perhaps came as no surprise that last week many were somewhat aghast over claims Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, had been unavailable to make a phone call to the Afghan foreign minister about evacuating interpreters who had helped UK forces as he was away on holiday in Crete. Raab’s decision to remain on holiday and allegedly delegate some key actions to junior ministers was blamed for exacerbating the crisis and making it more difficult for many more of those at risk from getting out. As such, he has faced calls to resign over the issue but, so far, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he has full confidence in him.

There is understandably mixed reactions to this.  On one hand many will feel, given the governments lengthy need to manage the covid pandemic, a holiday was deserved and there will be others who feel, given the seriousness and international implications of the Afghan crisis, he should have curtailed his holiday.

As a former soldier, I have some personal experience of this. In September 1989, the Ambulance service went on strike.  During that time all military personal with medical training were deployed to cover the striking ambulance personnel.  I was part of that deployment and can remember, for the six months duration of the strike, we all lived in police stations and had to work round the clock shifts.  There were no holidays or days off allowed for anyone throughout, including Christmas.

Even though the Ambulance strike ended in February 1990, it wasn’t until a further six months in August before I was able to take a much needed break.  I had been on holiday for less than a week when Saddam Hussain decided to invade Kuwait. A few days later I was contacted by the Army and told my holiday was over and to report back to barracks immediately. Disappointing, of course, but that is part of a military career. Above all else, the service comes first.

Indeed, I’ll never forget the words of a senior officer who, when speaking about the mind-set of those who serve in military, said that when the time comes to deploy, it means making decisions on the best use of the time and resources available. If there aren’t enough tools and resources we don’t whinge and we don’t cry. What we do is we improvise, overcome and adapt.  We don’t stop for anything, we continue until we deliver.

Other notable careers with a similar practise are the police.  There have been many situations over the years when police officers in certain forces have had holidays cancelled due to operational requirements.  In my view, parliamentary ministers and senior government positions are also careers where, at times, certain crises or operational necessities override days off and holidays.

Personally, I happen to think that, on the whole, Dominic Raab has been a dedicated cabinet minister who’s worked long hard hours and, no doubt, was looking forward to a break.

However, like the police and military, he should have put duty first and curtailed his holiday sooner to do whatever he can to deal with the horrendous situation in Afghanistan.

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This column was published in the Newcastle Journal on the 2nd September  2021.