A Royal Air Force veteran whose role was to provide security for reconstruction to take place after the fall of the Taliban at the beginning of Operation TARROCK (pre-HERRICK) has spoken of what he argues is a devastating betrayal of those who served, were killed or injured in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Western troops from the country.
Flight Lieutenant James Wilthew said he now fears for his friends in Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country's capital city, Kabul.
Part of Flt Lt Wilthew's role during Op TARROCK in late 2003 was to engage with local elders in the towns and villages to monitor the security situation. He spent time with warlords, chiefs of police and local people in a non-combat role across the five northern provinces of Afghanistan.
The relationships he formed back then encouraged the now RAF Reservist to set up a business upon his return to the UK, with a mission to support Afghan communities and artisan craftspeople in Afghanistan.
His Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, helps preserve traditional Afghanistan crafts by importing high-quality rugs from some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and selling them throughout the United Kingdom.
Flt Lt Wilthew has forged strong relationships with several traders living in Northern Afghanistan and the community where they live since opening his shop, which sells handmade, Fairtrade rugs direct from the fourth-largest city in Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif.
Speaking with broadcasters Richard Hatch and Verity Geere, of BFBS, the Forces Station, he says the traders think the same as many living in the Western world, saying:
"It's a devastating betrayal of anyone that's served in a British uniform out there or any other NATO uniform, that's been injured or killed out there.
"It's a devastating betrayal of them and their efforts of the last 20 years and it's a devastating betrayal of the Afghan people."
There are reports of women and young girls fearing for their safety, as many remember previous incarnations of Taliban rule, with many scared they will be murdered or face greater oppression under the command of the militants, despite assurances from the Taliban leadership that they aim to preserve women's rights 'under sharia law'.
Many of the 300,000 men of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, who had the tools, training and equipment of any modern military thanks to the UK and its allies, have retreated to their bases.
After almost 20 years of deployment, the war in Afghanistan has seen 457 UK Armed Forces personnel die and many more left with life-changing disabilities from serious injury.
Many personnel, veterans and relatives of those who have died in Afghanistan are said to be left wondering if their loved ones' deaths were for nothing.
The RAF veteran said he agreed in general with a withdrawal from Afghanistan but he questioned the speed at which it happened, saying:
"It's the sudden and immediate power vacuum that's been left that's the issue.
"I'm not saying withdrawal wasn't supposed to happen but it's the sudden nature of it that has created this catastrophic mess."
Flt Lt Wilthew said that since the Afghan capital Kabul was taken by the Taliban, the traders he keeps in contact with are relatively safe because the Taliban rely on taxes from businesses, so in some of the provincial towns and cities, shops and bazaars are likely to reopen.
Clarissa Ward, CNN's Chief International Correspondent, reporting from the streets of Kabul since before the Taliban's takeover of the city has said she has witnessed one type of business thriving.
While not all shops have reopened, she reported there has been an increase in the trade of burqas – an item of clothing that covers a woman's entire body from the top of the head to the ground – because it is felt dressing in this way will keep women safe on the streets under Taliban rule.
Speaking about the reopening of other types of businesses, like the rug shops that he trades with, Flt Lt Wilthew said:
"It depends which part of their PR machine you believe compared to the ground truth that's actually, you know, the picture there now, but give it a week or two and those shops and places will be reopened."
Meanwhile, the RAF veteran says his focus is not on how this will affect his shop but on the Afghan people for whom he holds so much affection. Continuing to trade, albeit in a different way, for now, will help keep the men he deals with earning a living at a time when the country is being taken over by the Taliban he said. He added:
"All I have to do in terms of trade is reignite one or two of my old more discreet roots of getting rugs out of the country that aren't blatantly labelled with UK flags.
"My main concern are the people who I feel very responsible for in the country."
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Cover Image Credit: Flt Lt James Wilthew.