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As American and NATO troops begin their formal withdrawal from Afghanistan, local interpreters and staff who worked for them fear for their lives. 

Last month, Britain signalled that it will follow suit with the United States, in a joint decision to withdraw their remaining troops in Afghanistan by 11 September, marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

Some in Britain’s foreign policy and diplomatic circles have made claims arguing that the Taliban have changed. 

In an interview with the BBC, General Nick Carter, Head of the UK armed forces said “I actually think that the Taliban is not the organization it once was, it is an organization that has evolved significantly in the 20 years that we have been there”.

“They recognize that they need some political legitimacy and I would not be surprised if a scenario plays out that actually sees it not being quite as bad as perhaps some of the naysayers at the moment are predicting,” he continues. 

Some regional analysts however, disagree with the perspective that claims the Taliban have changed.

They argue that not only has the ideological grounding of the Taliban remained the same, but the NATO withdrawal could leave a security vacuum ready to be exploited. 

The local staff left behind in fear 

Amongst those sharing concerns, are the local staff that worked for and supported NATO troops. 

In Afghanistan, both Britain and the United States, depended on the language skills and cultural knowledge of the local citizens to provide interpretation between their forces and Afghan citizens. 

British forces, in particular, were supported by approximately 7,000 locally employed civilians, who are described by many to have been the “eyes and ears” of the British. 

As NATO begins to carry out its withdrawal, many have reported fear of the Taliban wanting them dead, as they associate their work with foreign troops to be treacherous.

In the eyes of the Taliban, interpreters and local staff are considered collaborators and sometimes accused of being spies and infidels. 

The shortcomings of the UK’s resettlement scheme 

A new resettlement scheme has been introduced this month, the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). It is designed to offer relocation or other assistance to former local staff in Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal. 

The policy, however, contains shortcomings. For example, former staff who were dismissed during their role will not be eligible for the scheme. 

 “Unfortunately, we have already been notified about at least 25 cases in which local staff who applied to the scheme were immediately informed that their termination meant that they were excluded from ‘relocation by default’” Dr Sara de Jong, Co-Founder of advocacy initiative Sulha Alliance and Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York, explains.

A government report published in October 2020 reveals that 1010 interpreters left for disciplinary reasons, 478 were made redundant, 14 had their contracts expired, and 1350 left for ‘another reason’.

“First of all, our observation was that the number of disciplinary dismissals was very high; which British company would fire 1/3 of its workers for disciplinary reasons?” Dr de Jong tells City Internation.  

“Secondly, the category “left for disciplinary reasons” is very broad and doesn’t do justice to the important differences between the cases. It encompasses cases of interpreters who have worked faithfully for years before being fired for returning late from leave, for instance (note that there were often roadblocks preventing travel or interpreters may have had serious family obligations, such as funeral attendance etc.) as well as cases of sexual assault. We are worried that all these cases are treated in the same way” Dr de Jong continues. 

Dr de Jong also points to the fact that “local staff had no right to appeal against being dismissed so their perspective on the situation remained unheard”. 

The need for a case by case approach

City Internation asked Dr de Jong, in what ways could the government make the system fairer.

“We think there needs to be a clearer commitment that even if an interpreter was terminated, if there is a threat to their safety they should be eligible for aspects of ARAP, including resettlement to the UK. That will also mean reviewing some of their terminations and taking a careful case-by-case approach” she says. 

According to Sulha Alliance, there are other challenges in the application process, such as the government not accepting the applications of those from third countries who had to flee. 

Although the shortcomings have been highlighted by the media and campaigners, no decision has been made as of yet by the British government on how to protect their former local staff and their families amid the obstacles found within ARAP.  

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