Sudan evacuation: has Foreign Office learnt the lessons from Afghanistan?

Failings of chaotic withdrawal from Kabul prompt return of foreign secretary and airlift of Britons from Khartoum

Preparations for the evacuation took place in Cyprus
Preparations for the evacuation took place in Cyprus
(Image credit: Royal Navy/Mark Johnson handout/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock)

The Foreign Office has announced the evacuation of British nationals from Sudan after a 72-hour ceasefire was agreed between the warring sides last night.

With fighting in the capital Khartoum, British diplomats and their families were airlifted to safety in Cyprus on Sunday with the help of UK special forces. This led “trapped” British citizens still in Sudan – believed to number between 2,000 and 4,000 – to “hit out at the Foreign Office”, said The Sun. “Hundreds were told to sit tight at home and wait for instructions despite food and water being cut.”

With the fragile ceasefire now in effect, the Foreign Office said flights will be open to those with British passports, with priority given to families with children and/or the elderly or individuals with medical conditions. The first took off this afternoon, although officials added that “British nationals should not make their way to the airfield unless they are called”.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The situation in Sudan has “some alarming parallels” with the withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan in 2021, said The Telegraph in an editorial, “in particular the complaints from UK nationals that they are not getting the same help that others are receiving”.

What did the papers say?

“Pressure had been growing on the government to act,” Politico said, after the removal of embassy staff at the weekend and “as other nations pressed on with their own extractions”.

British ministers have been “challenged repeatedly to explain how other countries had managed to evacuate at least some of their nationals, and whether the UK had wasted a window of opportunity to extract large numbers on Sunday, during a brief lull in the fighting”, added The Guardian.

“Family members of some stranded Brits had complained they felt abandoned,” said Politico, but the Foreign Office “pushed back”, saying there were greater numbers of British nationals needing assistance and it was “simply unsafe to move large numbers of people, including children and the elderly, without a cessation in the fighting”.

The Times said there are “key differences” between the situation in Sudan and the “appalling mismanagement” and “deep failure of leadership” that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said characterised the British evacuation from Afghanistan 18 months ago.

The departure from Kabul was “the culmination of two decades of western military presence, meaning the UK had troops and infrastructure on the ground” and “access to a secure airport in the centre of Kabul to carry out the airlift”, said the paper.

By contrast, in Sudan “there is no British military presence and the airport in Khartoum has been at the centre of some of the conflict’s heaviest fighting, effectively stranding foreign nationals looking to escape”.

So how is the Foreign Office leadership doing this time round, asked Patrick Cockburn on the i news site. “Once again it was noticeably caught by surprise by the sudden deterioration of the situation. It seldom seems to have the right people in place at the start of an emergency and is slow to mobilise them thereafter,” he wrote.

Above all, though, the Foreign Office has been keen to avoid the perception it is asleep at the wheel. In contrast to those in charge during the crisis in Afghanistan, the current foreign secretary, James Cleverly, was quick to abandon his Pacific tour “to focus on Sudan”.

The UK's ambassador to Sudan, Giles Lever, was on holiday in London over Easter when the crisis started, said the Daily Mail. But he has reportedly been instrumental in helping to broker the ceasefire “thanks to his personal connections to senior figures in both the government and rebel forces”, said Politico.

“We most certainly have learned lessons from Afghanistan, but the position in Sudan is completely different,” said Andrew Mitchell, minister for development and Africa, in the House of Commons yesterday. He reminded MPs there were no British troops on the ground in Sudan, the airport is “entirely out of action” and there are not the same permissions as offered by the Taliban to take people out of the country.

What next?

The big question is whether the ceasefire will hold long enough to complete the evacuation of all those who want to leave.

“Maybe not,” judged Politico, noting attempts at ceasefires have been made “four or five times in recent days” and during one extraction, a French citizen was shot when violence flared up again.

At least the “fragile truce” is holding for now, said the BBC, which reported the first RAF transport plane had landed at an airfield north of Khartoum just after 10am local time today.

The Ministry of Defence has said the airlift operation would involve A400M Atlas planes, with a passenger capacity of up to 200, and a C130 Hercules, with a capacity of about 120. “Any airlift would be limited by the size of the airfield, which the UK said on Monday could carry only two Atlas-size planes at a time,” said the Guardian. “It is likely to be shared with countries other than the UK while the ceasefire agreed holds.”

Politico said it “was unclear what would happen if the ceasefire fails to hold”, or if “significant numbers of non-British citizens attempt to rush the airfield”.

But, perhaps learning the greatest lesson from the Afghanistan debacle – which provided the defining images of Western unpreparedness and ineptitude – the news site reported that those working on the evacuation “were keen to avoid a scenario in which people panicked and ran for the planes”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.