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Maidstone's Labour leader Paul Harper recalls his days in Afghanistan and worries for the plight of old friends

The recent tumultuous events in Afghanistan have disturbed many people, but none more so than Cllr Paul Harper, the leader of the Labour Group on Maidstone Borough Council.

Between the years 2000 and 2006, Cllr Harper was the business manager for the BBC's World Service EurAsia division, which basically meant he had responsibility for providing the supporting logistics for all the BBC's stations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Paul Harper in front of the Daral Aman Palace near the country's National Assembly Building
Paul Harper in front of the Daral Aman Palace near the country's National Assembly Building

He said: "I dealt with everything except editorial policy - from HR issues, to IT, to property and security."

Based in Bush House in London, he made several trips to Kabul in Afghanistan. He said: "The first was in 2002, shortly after the US and NATO forces had driven the Taliban out of the city.

"There was no electricity at the airport, and no navigation system. You flew into the airport and saw the wreckage of planes on the hillsides around."

What he remembers is the enormous devastation everywhere.

He said: "The war had left a huge number of land-mines and in clearing these it seemed like half the city had been destroyed."

Vast areas of the capital had been turned into wastelands by mine clearance
Vast areas of the capital had been turned into wastelands by mine clearance

He said: "Kabul was still a very populous city with several million inhabitants, but they were all crowded together because so many parts were uninhabitable."

But Cllr Harper said: "Despite this, I remember the joy of the Afghan people at being rid of the Taliban.

"They were pleased to see anyone from the West - totally welcoming.

"Everywhere, rebuilding was in progress and it was a joy to behold how life was returning to something akin to the pre-Taliban era, even if the shops were operating from trailers because the buildings had been destroyed.

"The people saw it as an opportunity for a fresh start."

The Paghman Victory Arch - and inset, how it used to look
The Paghman Victory Arch - and inset, how it used to look

Both then and up until most recently, the vast majority of the BBC staff were Afghans.

Cllr Harper said: "I'm not sure I spoke to another English person all the while I was there."

Some of his Afghan staff took him on tours of the city and the neighbouring areas, but it was a mixed blessing.

He said: "There had once been a thick forest around Kabul, but I hardly saw a tree still standing. They had all been cut down for firewood.

"It was already a very poor country that had clearly really been through it."

The National Stadium in Kabul - site of mass executions by the Taliban
The National Stadium in Kabul - site of mass executions by the Taliban

He said: "Nothing could be sourced in country, all our equipment had to be flown in from Dubai."

Cllr Harper visited the Paghman Arch, which had been built to celebrate Afghanistan's independence from Britain in 1919.

He said: "It was badly damaged during the first war with the Taliban, so it was a somewhat poignant symbol."

He also saw the National Stadium, only to be told by his guides how the Taliban had used it as a giant prison and carried out mass executions on the pitch there.

He said: "It was difficult to just do the tourist thing, because it was obvious that everywhere had a far deeper meaning for the locals."

Paul Harper in Kabul
Paul Harper in Kabul

Cllr Harper's last visit to Afghanistan was in 2006.

He said: "I landed during Ramadan and the country seemed very different. There was hardy anyone about.

"Afghanistan has always had a very conservative culture and Ramadan was observed much more strictly there than in any of the surrounding Muslim countries I had visited."

He also felt that the security situation had deteriorated - which was confirmed when six months after he left, the hotel in which he had been staying was bombed.

Cllr Harper said: "Like everyone I am saddened and distressed at the recent events."

Paul Harper in Afghanistan
Paul Harper in Afghanistan

He said: "Just because the US wanted to run away, I don't see why the other NATO partners could not have remained to ensure stability.

"Britain has a responsibility to help the Afghan people. Ten's of thousands of people worked with UK organisations directly and many more people were encouraged to take the freedoms they had as a result of the ISAF (NATO) forces being there.

"Our armed forces were there for 20 years - lots of our servicemen lost their lives or were seriously maimed either physically or psychologically.

"They have also been let down by the shambles the US and UK have left in Afghanistan.

"Britain and the US have betrayed a strategic ally, but should we be surprised - look at the disasters left behind in Iraq and Libya where we supported the Americans."

The damaged Paghman Arch
The damaged Paghman Arch

Cllr Harper said: "If we invade, or liberate, choose your own words, then we have a responsibility to leave the country in a better state than when we went in.

"For the UK to say it will only allow in 20,000 refugees - well that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the families of people who worked directly or indirectly for UK organisations over the last 20 years.

"We need to take in a much larger number if we are not to betray those people."

Cllr Harper said: "Maidstone council should take a lead and be a refuge and new hope for resettled Afghans."

As well as the 20,000 refugees permitted to settle here under the Government's Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme, Afghans can apply for asylum in the normal way, if they make it into the country.

The problem for those still trapped in Afghanistan now is getting out of the country, with the Taliban in complete control of Kabul Airport.

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