Britain does not intend to recognise the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan any time in the near future, but will start direct engagement with the Islamist group on a range of urgent issues including getting evacuees out of the country.
Speaking in Doha during a visit to the region, the foreign secretary held that there was a need to “adjust to the new reality” and for a dialogue to begin with the Taliban following their seizure of power.
The foreign secretary, facing severe censure at home over his handling of the Afghan crisis, sought to show that the UK is playing a forward role as the international community tries to find a strategy to deal with the extraordinary triumph of the militant group and the challenges that has brought.
Mr Raab met the foreign minister of Qatar, the country which has hosted the Taliban’s political office for eight years, and which is rapidly becoming the diplomatic hub in dealing with what is unfolding in Afghanistan. The US and the UK have transferred their Kabul embassies to Doha and other states are expected to follow.
Mr Raab, who will travel next to Pakistan, said the UK is attempting to build a regional coalition to “exert the maximum moderating influence” on the Taliban, and praised Qatar as an “influential player” in the coalition.
Boris Johnson’s government has been fiercely attacked for leaving many people entitled to refuge in Britain trapped in Afghanistan, and the foreign secretary acknowledged that getting safe passage for them was a priority.
Asked whether he felt any personal guilt about those in danger from the Islamists being left behind, with many of them forced to go into hiding, Mr Raab said that the UK had airlifted about 15,000 people in the last fortnight.
The foreign secretary was also asked about the fate of contractors, including guards, who used to work at the British embassy in Kabul. He said there was a sense of responsibility towards those who believed they should be able to go to the UK, but offered no detail on what was being done to help those people.
The behaviour of the Taliban on the issue of allowing people to leave will be a key point in establishing their legitimacy, Mr Raab told journalists, adding that it was vital to establish channels to pass on messages to the group.
“We will not be recognising the Taliban. But we do see the need to be able to have direct engagement, otherwise we can’t provide messages, we can’t listen to the response,” he said.
“We need to adjust to the new reality and our immediate priority is to secure the safe passage of those remaining British nationals, but also the Afghans who worked for the United Kingdom and indeed others who may be at most risk.”
There were also other important issues that needed to be addressed, said Mr Raab. His discussions in Qatar have included efforts to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorism, prevent a humanitarian crisis, preserve regional stability, and safeguard women’s rights.
The UK, he said, would judge the Taliban on their deeds and not their words, and urged the group to form an inclusive government with minorities and women. He added: “We also all want to avoid a humanitarian disaster and that requires a permissive environment.”
Meanwhile, the Qatari government is in talks with the Taliban to open Kabul airport. The Qatari foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, said there was not yet a “clear indication” of when this would happen. But he added: “We are working very hard. We remain hopeful that we will be able to operate it as soon as possible. Hopefully in the next few days we will hear some good news.”
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