Britain was making a final push to bring nearly 2,000 Afghan interpreters and staff out of Kabul on Thursday in what was expected to be the final day of the RAF’s airlift operation.
With tensions rising as the 31 August deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces approaches, one military source said there was “a very high risk of a terrorist attack” by suicide bomb or small arms fire against the UK’s 1,000-strong contingent in the final days before their departure.
The UK is speaking with Taliban representatives in Afghanistan and the Gulf, both to facilitate the evacuations and seek assurances on the safety of those remaining, but ministers have acknowledged that the chaos in Kabul makes it inevitable that some of those eligible to come to the UK will be left behind.
Officials in London insisted that the timing of the last UK evacuation flight has not yet been decided, but defence secretary Ben Wallace made clear in a conference call with MPs on Wednesday evening that time was running very short. Under an agreement with Washington, Britain is required to end its presence on the ground at the airport ahead of the final pull-out of US troops and military equipment, which the Pentagon said would occupy the final couple of days before the departure deadline set by president Joe Biden.
A total of 10,291 individuals of 38 nationalities, including more than 5,500 Afghans and their families, have been evacuated by Britain since 13 August at a rate reaching 2,000 a day. The US operation to fly out more than 80,000 people is history’s biggest airlift, topping the numbers brought out of Vietnam at the fall of Saigon in 1975. Over a 24-hour period from Tuesday to Wednesday, 90 packed aircraft left Kabul at a rate of one every 39 minutes.
More than 10,000 people were at Kabul airport waiting to leave, with the commander of the UK evacuation mission Brigadier Dan Blanchford describing “shocking” scenes of “families and individuals having to fight through some pretty desperate conditions” to get through the gates.
Speaking from Kabul, Brig Blanchford said: “I couldn’t be more proud of the men and women I’ve got on the frontline here, who have seen and witnessed some pretty heartbreaking scenes. Over the last 72 hours and before they continue to work round the clock to ensure that we’re able to assist as many of the at-risk Afghans and personnel as possible to get them safely out of Afghanistan to a place of safety.”
The Pentagon said it would keep trying to get people out “for every day and every hour that we’ve got” – but warned that capacity will be set aside in the final two days “to prioritise the military footprint leaving”.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson was coming under pressure to step up preparations for what MPs and charities warn could be a “humanitarian catastrophe” after the closure of the airport, as thousands of left-behind Afghans flee from the threat of retribution from a hardline fundamentalist regime in Kabul freed from remaining restraints on its actions.
One senior MP who served as a soldier in Helmand province, Labour’s Dan Jarvis, told The Independent that preparations to support the reception of a potential flood of refugees in neighbouring countries like Pakistan had so far been “sluggish”. As president of the G7 group of global powers, Boris Johnson has a responsibility to lead the drive for a concerted international response and to secure guarantees from the Taliban over the coming days that humanitarian organisations will be able to operate safely within Afghanistan, he said.
And Conservative former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell told The Independent it was “essential” that the international community prepare now for “a significant exodus of destitute Afghans across the border into Pakistan and Iran”.
The executive director of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley, warned: “There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by Covid.” About 14 million people are threatened with starvation, he added.
David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, said that the current focus on the situation at the airport must not distract from the plight of Afghans elsewhere in the country.
“There needs to be action now to address the country’s growing humanitarian crises,” said Mr Miliband. “18.4 million Afghans are already critically dependent on aid, including 10 million children.
“The World Food Programme has warned that core food supplies could run out by October, as acute hunger is rising across the country. The number of people made homeless by the conflict has jumped by 53 per cent from 360,000 to 550,000 in August alone.”
Current pledges from G7 nations “fall far short of addressing the scale of need in the country”, and richer nations must follow the lead of the UK and G7 in stepping up funding for life-saving support on the ground, he said.
As many as 200 MPs of all political stripes raised concerns in the conference call with Mr Wallace about cases of individuals in fear of persecution because of their international links or work on human rights and the education of women.
“There is a huge amount of nervousness about what happens the other side of 31 August,” said one MP on the call. “There will be a lot of political pressure on the government to do whatever they can to create the conditions where a lot of people are not going to be murdered because of their previous service.”
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that “every hour and day we’ve got” will be used to help people flee. But he refused to rule out the possibility of UK forces having to complete their departure by the end of Friday and acknowledged that some people eligible for evacuation would be left behind.
France said it was likely to end operations in the coming hours or days, while chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament that “the end of the air bridge in a few days must not mean the end of efforts to protect Afghan helpers”. A senior German diplomat said the Taliban had offered assurances that Afghans with legal documents will be able to travel on commercial flights beyond the end of the month.
Speaking after the G7 summit, Mr Johnson made safe passage for refugees his top demand from the Taliban, holding out the prospect of financial and diplomatic support – as well as the release of “huge” frozen assets – if the new rulers in Kabul show a respect for human rights and swear off support for terrorism.
The UK has established contacts at a number of levels with Taliban representatives, but without a clear command and control structure in the militant group, sources in Whitehall admit that it remains uncertain what stance the new regime will take after foreign troops depart.
While the UK has doubled its aid to £286m, there is no question of the UK setting up camps or seeking to bring individuals out of the country after the conclusion of the current airlift. Preparatory talks have begun with countries in the region on the establishment of “processing hubs” for Afghans who may be entitled to resettlement in the UK, which are expected to involve small units deployed to UN refugee camps or based at local embassies and consulates.
Mr Jarvis told The Independent: “It is now an urgent political priority to engage with the new Taliban regime and impress on them the need to tolerate and accept the operations of humanitarian NGOs and to allow safe passage out of the country.”
He called on Mr Johnson as chair of the G7 to lead a drive to create an international contact group of nations willing to support humanitarian efforts in the region.
“It seems that the regional engagement has been quite sluggish on this,” said Mr Jarvis. “There needs to be high level political engagement with Pakistan’s political leadership as part of a concerted international effort to exercise the maximum amount of leverage.
“Nobody is excited about the prospect of dealing with the Taliban, but we are invested in that country, we have a leading role to play as part of a stabilisation effort. As chair of the G7, The prime minister should be playing a leading role in seeking to coordinate that activity because if that doesn’t happen the humanitarian catastrophe that will develop will be severe.”