Tuesday, 21 Sep 2021

Afghanistan: UK’s evacuation effort ‘down to hours, not weeks’, defence secretary says

The UK’s evacuation effort in Afghanistan is “down to hours now, not weeks”, the defence secretary has said.

Ben Wallace conceded the UK’s involvement will end when the US leaves Afghanistan, which is expected to be on 31 August.

“The prime minister is, obviously at the G7, going to try and raise the prospect of seeing if the United States will extend,” he said on a visit to Port George, near Inverness.

“It’s really important for people to understand the United States have over 6,000 people in Kabul airport and when they withdraw that will take away the framework, and we will have to go as well.

“I don’t think there is any likelihood of staying on after the United States. If their timetable extends even by a day or two, that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people.

“Because we are really down to hours now, not weeks, and we have to make sure we exploit every minute to get people out.”

Just before his comments, the Foreign Office announced it sent five more staff to Kabul Airport last night and today to help with the evacuation.

Nineteen Foreign Office staff, including Ambassador Laurie Bristow, are now at the airport helping the military to process and evacuate British nationals and Afghans who worked for the British over the past 20 years, as well as their families.

A G7 leaders summit is due to take place virtually tomorrow, with Boris Johnson to push US President Joe Biden for an extension of the US pullout at the end of August.

The president has signalled he could be willing to bow to demands but Mr Wallace said the Taliban would also have to agree to that.

Taliban spokesman Dr Suhail Shaheen told Sky News 31 August is “a red line” and there will be “consequences” if Mr Biden delays the withdrawal of US troops.

But Mr Wallace said it was “in the Taliban’s interest to keep the country open” and the group would “want the airport to function”, which would mean people eligible to leave Afghanistan on flights or overland, could do so.

Armed forces minister James Heappey said the “hard reality” was not all people eligible would be airlifted out but said there is a “second phase” where people will be able to register for the UK’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) at a refugee handling centre or embassies in the region.

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He told Sky News: “There were a number of people from civil society that weren’t part of ARAP, but the UK government has been trying to do the right thing.”

The minister said the UK has extracted 1,821 people on eight flights from Kabul in the past 24 hours, with 6,631 evacuated in the past week.

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