British troops were saved from almost certain death in the Kabul suicide attack by an 11th-hour decision, commanders revealed last night.
Based on intelligence about a threat from Isis-K fanatics, UK paratroopers were moved back a short distance which meant they avoided last week’s airport blast by a matter of feet, while 13 US troops patrolling the same area were among the 182 killed.
Moments after surviving the attack at the Abbey Gate, British soldiers were able to form a protective cordon around the US Marines and rescue injured children.
In his first interview since arriving back in the UK, Brigadier James Martin, the Commanding Officer of 16 Air Assault Brigade, said: ‘We were aware there was a credible threat and we had taken steps the previous evening to create a greater standoff between where a suicide bomber might appear and our people and civilians.
‘I think that undoubtedly put us in a good position. I also think, ultimately, it saved lives. There is a degree of serendipity about this, that none of our people got hurt, but I mean, we are talking by feet.
‘I imagine for some of our people, that is quite difficult to deal with.’
In his first interview since arriving back in the UK, Brigadier James Martin revealed UK paratroopers were moved back a short distance which meant they avoided last week’s airport blast by a matter of feet
British troops ‘ran towards explosions’ during the suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport (pictured) that killed at least 182 people, a senior Army officer has revealed
Brigadier Martin, one of the most decorated officers in the British Army, was humbled by the response of his soldiers.
‘We heard the bang and about three seconds later we felt the sting and that very distinctive smell of CS gas which hit us as the blast had vaporized some of the US stocks of CS,’ he said.
‘And then very quickly the gates were open, we were bringing in injured women and children. Our soldiers were running towards the explosion to provide first aid, explosive ordinance disposal support to our American brethren and to provide them with security to evacuate their wounded.
‘When the bomb went off and shots were fired – they weren’t necessarily fired by the enemy – our people ran towards the sound of the gunfire. I am exceptionally proud of how they undertook their duties that day.’
In the days before the attack, US aircraft circling over Kabul intercepted electronic messages about a suicide bomber targeting crowds and Western troops at the airport.
Lieutenant Colonel David Middleton, the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (2 Para) said: ‘We were very close to the explosion.
‘We had, based on the intelligence beforehand, moved back to a more contained area.
‘So if you looked at where our forces were laid out 24 hours earlier it would have been far more exposed.
‘We knew the threat was there. We did our best to mitigate it.’
The troops – some only 18 or 19 – are now being offered counselling to cope with what Lt Col Middleton described as the ‘visceral’ experience of the explosion and processing evacuees.
‘What young soldiers, male, female, different cap badges, different colours, different creeds did, to save lives was really humbling,’ he added.
Details of the UK’s response to warnings of an attack come after a ‘blame game’ over whether the blast could have been prevented.
According to reports earlier this week, US commanders wanted to close the Abbey Gate – where thousands of desperate evacuees were queuing – hours before the terrorist struck.
Reports suggested they were persuaded by their British counterparts to keep it open, a move which made US troops more vulnerable.
The claims were denied by Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab but put more strain on the UK’s relationship with the US.
Prince Charles, Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment, has hailed the regiment as an ‘outstanding credit to the country’, expressing admiration and pride in its effort to lead the evacuation effort in Kabul.
‘Betrayed by Biden… but I fight on in the valley that’s my nation’s last hope’: Afghanistan’s vice-president Amrullah Saleh gives a brave despatch while under siege from the Taliban in his snow-capped mountain stronghold
From Amrullah Saleh in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan
Amrullah Saleh, 48, is the former vice president of Afghanistan, who escaped Kabul as the Taliban advanced to join Ahmad Massoud and the National Resistance Front in the Panjshir Valley.
The remote, 70 mile long valley, bordered by high mountains, is a geographical stronghold and the last province in Afghanistan to hold out against the Taliban. After peace negotiations failed, battle has now been joined with each side claiming territorial gains and heavy casualties in the past 48 hours.
In a courageous and moving dispatch from the frontline, Saleh – whose leader, President Ashraf Ghani, fled Kabul for the UAE – reveals his anger at Afghanistan’s betrayal by America but urges the West not to abandon his beloved nation.
Yesterday I attended the burial ceremony of two of the best commanders I ever knew who were killed last night.
The fighting here is heavy now, with casualties on both sides. The Taliban are using American munitions against us and Blackhawk helicopters are being flown in to reinforce their attacks.
I did not speak at the funeral, but others did. And when they asked the hundreds of mourners drawn from the communities of the Panjshir Valley – the last Afghan province resisting the Taliban – if they were prepared to continue fighting, a roar of support erupted.
The people are resolute. They – we – are united in defending our dignity, our land, our history, and our pride against the Taliban whose fighters have been amassing here in recent days.
The snow-capped mountains of this valley, some 90 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, are majestic and there is a long history of successful resistance here.
It beats in the proud heart of every man, every woman, and every child.
Right now our entire focus is on ensuring the survival of this valley as the base against the Taliban who in recent months have over run this nation.
Survival does not necessarily mean defending each and every inch of the territory. It means ensuring that the enemy will never gain control here.
In a courageous and moving dispatch from the frontline, Amrullah Saleh reveals his anger at Afghanistan’s betrayal by America but urges the West not to abandon his beloved nation
We know we are not alone. Other Afghans are with us – in the nearby Andarab Valley, in parts of Kapisa Province, and in pockets in Parwan. And we have contacts all over the country, particularly in northern and central Afghanistan.
Many fighters are flocking here to join the National Resistance Front (NRF) – anti-Taliban fighters, former Afghan security forces and ordinary Afghans who want to stop us returning to the rule of the Taliban.
For the Taliban have not won any hearts and minds. They have simply exploited the flawed policy of a fatigued American president — not necessarily the United States itself — and they are being micromanaged by Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the ISI.
The Taliban’s spokesperson receives directions, literally every hour, from the Pakistani embassy.
It is the Pakistanis who are in charge as effectively a colonial power. But this is not going to last because they and their clients will not be able to erect a functioning economy or create a civil service.
They may have territorial control, but as our history has shown, control of land does not necessarily mean control over the people or stability. And I do not see Taliban having any idea about governance.
The betrayal of Afghanistan by the West is colossal.
The scenes at Kabul airport in recent days represented the humiliation of humanity, an embarrassment for any nation that has been involved in Afghanistan since the Taliban were routed by the US-led Coalition Force in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocity.
The Americans may boast about evacuating some 123,000 people from the country (of whom 6000 were Americans), but there are 40 million of us.
Now, with the closure of the airport in Kabul, the Afghan exodus is continuing at the other border crossings and it is worse than it was during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
This is not only shameful for President Biden, it is shameful for the whole of Western civilisation.
‘For 20 years, Western leaders promised not to stand on the Afghan constitution – and it is the spirit of that constitution I have carried in my heart here to the Panjshir Valley (pictured)’
Your politicians know that Pakistan is running the show.
They know al Qaeda is back in the streets of Kabul. And they know the Taliban have not reformed. They have been displaying their suicide vests in Kabul.
But there’s still time for the West to save its reputation and credibility.
Biden was determined to end America’s ‘longest war’ and would no longer countenance keeping even a few thousand soldiers in my country to support our own Afghan forces – despite our enormous sacrifices and the advice of his own generals.
It was a very artificial frustration and, I believe, for the purposes of electioneering. But the world over, the currency with which the Americans are paying is their credibility and standing.
And yet they have the capability to reverse this.
For 20 years, Western leaders promised not to stand on the Afghan constitution – and it is the spirit of that constitution I have carried in my heart here to the Panjshir Valley.
Now those of us gathered here are fighting to preserve the promise contained in it.
I call upon the West not only to give us moral and – where possible – material support, but also to use this opportunity to press for a political settlement with the Taliban, a settlement that has the backing of the Afghan people and the international community.
Morally, the West owes this to every Afghan. I’m not begging them to save me. I am asking them to save their face, to save their dignity, to save their reputation and credibility.
Why have I chosen to be here? Because I believe those politicians who leave their country in moments of crisis betray its very soil.
Prior to the collapse of Kabul, I was offered the chance to escape, but I found that invitation offensive. I was determined to shatter the notion that every Afghan leader is only good enough when he or she is in a protected environment.
I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my late leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, who fought the Soviets and the Taliban and prevented them from ever gaining control of the region.
He endured pain, frustration, and crises and yet he remained, with meagre resources, with his people.
Just days before 9/11 he was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives masquerading as journalists. For me to flee would have amounted to a betrayal of his soul and his legacy.
Joe Biden was determined to end America’s ‘longest war’ and would no longer countenance keeping even a few thousand soldiers in my country to support our own Afghan forces – despite our enormous sacrifices and the advice of his own generals
The night before Kabul fell, the police chief called me to say there was a revolt inside the prison and the Taliban inmates were attempting to escape.
I had created a network of non-Taliban prisoners. I called them, and they started a counter revolt on my orders within the prison.
Mob control units were deployed along with some Afghan special forces and the situation in the prison was controlled.
Around 8am the next morning, after grabbing a few hours’ sleep I was woken by my guard, who informed me that many people were trying to contact me.
There were dozens of missed calls from family, friends, Afghan officials, fellow politicians and security authorities asking for guidance as the Taliban’s advance became clear.
I tried to contact the Minister of Defence, the Interior Minister, and their deputies. But I could not find them.
I did find very committed officials in both ministries who reported to me how they are not able to deploy the reserves or the commandoes to the frontlines.
I then spoke to the police chief of Kabul, a very brave man whom I wish all the best wherever he is.
He informed me that the line in the east had fallen, two districts in the south had fallen, and the adjacent province of Wardak had fallen.
He asked for my help in deploying commandoes. I asked him if he could hold the front with whatever resources he had for an hour.
He told me he could. But in that one desperate hour, I was unable to find deployable Afghan troops anywhere in the city.
And the reason was clear. The Americans had promised close air support in the weeks before but now it was clear that it was a worthless assurance.
Whenever our troops confronted a concentration of the Taliban, the Americans would cite the Doha Agreement – negotiated with the Taliban – to say they could not strike them except in very limited circumstances.
These limitations made no sense as the Taliban marched onwards and served only to strengthen the notion among many that this fight was futile and useless. I was not able to assemble any troops to help the police chief. I called the Palace.
I messaged our National Security Adviser to say we have to do something. I got no response from anyone. And by 9am that morning of August 15, Kabul was panicking.
The Intelligence Chief had visited me the evening before. I had asked him about his plan should the Taliban storm Kabul. ‘My plan is to join you wherever you go,’ he said. ‘Even if we are blocked by the Taliban, we do our last battle together.’
I could not find him now.
These politicians, I believe, betrayed the people. We told them for 20 years that we were engaged in a noble cause for their futures and that of generations to come. And the masses believed this and they stood by us. They gave us ovations and respect.
Then came a moment when the same people were pleading with their leaders to stand up for them. This was a moment of test.
They may say now that they would have become martyrs had they remained in Afghanistan. Why not? We need leaders to become martyrs.
They will say they would have been taken prisoner. Why not? We need leaders to serve as prisoners.
We need these leaders to experience the same suffering that the Afghan people are now being made to endure.
How could I see my people suffering, dying from hunger and thirst, walking barefoot, from a palace of safety and then sit behind a laptop screen and write about it?
Shall I expect the poorest of the poor people in the margins to be more strategic than I am, to be braver than I can demonstrate myself to be, to expect them to rescue the country while I just drop them a note on Facebook or Twitter?
Should I give a radio interview and then hope that these people will decode my messages and revolt? This is what some other leaders are hoping. They have gone.
They stay in these hotels and villas abroad. And then they call on the poorest Afghans to revolt. That’s craven. If we want a revolt, the revolt has to be led.
I was deluged with emotional messages inviting me to flee, to be a coward for a while and then jump back into the fray if things stabilised.
That would have been shameful. Not a vein in my body was prepared to accept such a future.
Instead I sent a message to Ahmad Massoud, son of my mentor, the late Massoud. ‘My brother, where are you?’ He said: ‘I’m in Kabul and planning my next move’. I told him I was also in Kabul and offered to join forces.
I then went through my home and destroyed pictures of my wife and my daughters. I collected my computer and some belongings. I asked my chief guard, Rahim, to place his hand on my Koran.
‘Rahim, you have served me loyally and I’m very grateful to you,’ I told him. ‘Here is my last order to you. Put your hand on the Koran and promise not to disobey the order I am giving you.’
He promised three times with all purity.
‘We are going to Panjshir and the road is already taken,’ I told him. ‘We will fight our way through. We will fight it together.
‘But should I get injured, I have one request of you. Shoot me twice in my head. I don’t want to surrender to the Taliban. Ever.’
And then we got into our convoy of a few armoured vehicles and two pickup trucks with guns mounted on them. The roads were jammed.
We crossed the northern pass with great difficulty because it has become a lawless territory. Thugs. Thieves. Taliban. We were attacked twice, but we survived. We fought our way with determination.
When we reached Panjshir, we got a message that the elders of the community had gathered in the mosque. I spoke to them for an hour and afterwards each of them rose in support.
Panjshir has been a tourist destination for 20 years. We had no military equipment, no ammunition here.
But that night I drew up a strategy to toughen the province’s defences.
Then I received a call informing me that Ahmed Massoud was heading to Panjshir by helicopter. I felt a surge of hope course through me. We had our first meeting to strategise that night.
Has it been easy to take up resistance? Absolutely not. I’m in a difficult situation, no doubt. I’m not made of steel I’m a human being. I have emotions. I’m aware that the Taliban want my head. But this is history. And we are in the centre of the history.
As told to Kapil Komireddi, the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India