The Afghanistan Evacuation: Could the ‘Cairo Plan’ of 1946 have offered a solution?

Britain has stood in shock at events in Afghanistan, but how far has our party offered any meaningful solution to the evacuation crisis?

While we can and should blame US foreign policy failings, is there anything our government could and should have done in the last two weeks to relieve the situation?

This is not the first time Britain has faced the need to organise an emergency evacuation of Westerners and their allies from a foreign capital. There are many historical parallels – for example, could the ‘Cairo Plan’ of 1946 have pointed to a way of managing the evacuation much more effectively?

Arguably, Cairo in 1946 was potentially a more dangerous place than Kabul in 2021. The British had announced their military withdrawal, leaving many thousands of Western citizens at risk from an Egyptian public stirred by violent strains of nationalism. There had already been riots, assassinations, and attacks on Western businesses.

The response of the British military was a plan to create ‘safe harbours’ within the capital – places that could be easily defended with small numbers of troops and armour. If the situation deteriorated, wireless broadcasts would guide Western citizens to their nearest local harbour, with key strategic points and local transport infrastructure supervised by the army and police. These harbours would be linked to protected evacuation corridors, allowing people safe passage to the Heliopolis airport or military airfields.

In the event, the ‘Cairo Plan’ was not needed, but it is just one example of what can be done when the political will and military planning is in place.

One has to ask why a ‘Cairo Plain’ was not enacted in Kabul? Even ten days ago there were very few actual Taliban fighters in Kabul, and certainly not enough to seriously interfere with a carefully-planned evacuation, supported by the world’s leading professional army. Was there ever a plan ever in place and did we have deployments on standby ready to execute the plan? Or was there no political will to do so? Did the US block it? Or was everyone on holiday?

We learned from the Sierra Leone emergency in 2000 that protecting an airport alone is quite useless unless one can protect the area around the airport and key routes to it. The British army has unparalleled expertise in these situations, so one can only regard the Kabul situation as a failing of political leadership at the MoD.

Ideally, one should avoid urban warfare at all costs, but the early deployment of defensive forces may have acted as a deterrent to the Taliban’s march on Kabul. Even if it didn’t, it would have bought Westerners and their allies some time to execute a more orderly evacuation.

Events over the next few days will reveal the cost of that inaction.

* Dr James Moore is a member of faculty in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. He is a former Liberal Democrat councillor and parliamentary candidate and a member of the Liberal Democrat History group. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John McHugo 24th Aug '21 - 9:59am

    Very interesting. I did not know about the Cairo plan in 1946. But I believe that much more recently, at the time of the campaign for the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the British Embassy in Cairo did set up a system of wardens in the expatriate British community who would contact lists of other Brits in case evacuation became necessary.

    I think the same was done in other Middle Eastern countries at the time. I wonder if anything like that existed in Kabul a couple of weeks ago.

    Of course, in Cairo in 1946 the British troops in Egypt were as much part of the problem as the solution. The British military occupation was deeply resented and was one of the main causes of the “violent strains of nationalism” to which James refers. I hope this will not lead to anyone drawing a parallel between Cairo in 1946 and Afghanistan today. Any comparison would be one that casts darkness rather than light on the issues, I would think.

  • Steve Trevethan 24th Aug '21 - 12:36pm

    Thank you fora most interesting and possibly most useful historical miniature!

    Alas, « The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. » (Hegel)

  • It is said the first casualty of war is always the plan. It seems clear that the coalition forces expected to have ample time to repatriate military personnel and further expected that Embassies and NGO;s would continue operating under the auspices of the Afghan government that would have Taliban representatives but not be under Taliban control. Any emergency evacuation would be dependent on US and coalition Troops holding the Green zone in Kabul and the approaches to the Airport from that zone
    As to the British army having unparalleled expertise in these situations, the evacuation of Kabul during the first Anglo-Afghan war was also known as the Disaster in Afghanistan. An agreement was reached on New Years day in 1842 with Afghan fighters that provided for the safe exodus of the British garrison of around 4500 personnel and its 12,000 dependents from Afghanistan. The disaster was documented by Lady Sale in a book that was serialised in the London Times. The entire garrison and their dependents died as the travelled through the mountain passes in Winter – shot, stabbed or frozen to death. Only the British women and children that the East India company would pay a ransom for survived. Lady Sale wrote “”There were no tents, save two or three small palls that arrived. Everyone scraped away the snow as best they might, to make a place to lie down. The evening and night were intensely cold; no food for man or beast procurable, except a few handfuls of bhoosay [chopped stew], for which we had to pay five to ten rupees”

  • David Evans 24th Aug '21 - 4:08pm

    James, Thank you for a very interesting article, with only one point where I don’t fully concur, and that is when you ask the question “is there anything our government could and should have done in the last two weeks to relieve the situation?”

    The answer to that is nothing other than desperate crisis management.

    Perhaps the question “is there anything our government could and should have done in the last two to three months?” would be more to the point, and that brings us back to what did the Americans tell us and when.

    As for Joe’s comment about the British retreat in 1842 – Yes. True. But I don’t think James was referring that far back when referring to British Army expertise. Do you?

  • @ Joe

    “It is said the first casualty of war is always the plan.”

    Indeed. There have been months to plan this. Biden’s delaying of the withdrawal up until the 31st August – it was originally supposed to have happened back in May – gave ample time. Instead we mucked about and now see the resultant chaos.

    Mike Tyson’s views on planning are even better because he names the reason why the plan goes out of the window. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

    The whole of the west has just been punched in the mouth and hasn’t even realised it yet. I have a feeling that regardless of what you, I, or anyone else who comments on this board thinks, we’re all headed for a pretty dark place.

    Yeah, yeah, we had a plan to evacuate Cairo. Big deal… we still had an empire then.

  • The US was the main player but we were number two…We had 18 months to implement the documentation and plan an orderly evacuation of UK nationals and ‘at risk’ Afghans; it seems we did nothing except hope that things would proceed as we wanted them to..In real life things rarely go that way..
    With the Taliban taking relatively bloodless control of provincial capitals at an alarming rate why our ‘leaders thought going/staying on holiday was a good idea is quite beyond me but, given their past history with dealing with crises, why we expected this one to be handled differently shows our naivety..
    In short we have failed most of those who worked with our forces and trusted our promises..

  • Helen Dudden 24th Aug '21 - 6:37pm

    I saw the report of a young girl just left at the road side. The vulnerable are always the losers in any situation.

  • Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I don’t think there was a strong contingency plan for when we started the evacutation. It took too long for the first British troops to arrive. It’s a very dangerous situation for all troops. I presume there was no other option than securing Kabul airport though some must have travelled long distances to get there. Helicopters could have been used more if we have them.

  • Charles Smith 25th Aug '21 - 7:33pm

    Western countries worked at a “war-footing pace” on Tuesday to get people out of Afghanistan, a NATO country diplomat said, as U.S. President Joe Biden looked set to come under pressure from other G7 leaders to seek more time to complete the airlift.

    Widespread chaos punctuated by sporadic violence has gripped Kabul’s airport, with Western troops and Afghan security guards driving back crowds desperate to flee following the Taliban’s take over of the Afghan capital on Aug. 15.

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