UK will leave Afghanistan when US pulls troops out, says defence minister

Ben Wallace says evacuation operation in Kabul ‘down to hours’

Adam Forrest
Monday 23 August 2021 11:10
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Afghanistan evacuation 'down to hours,' says minister

The UK’s evacuation operation in Afghanistan will stop whenever the US military withdraws troops from Kabul, the defence secretary has confirmed.

Ben Wallace has said the Kabul evacuation effort is “down to hours now, not weeks” as he conceded British troops’ involvement in getting people out the country will end when the US leaves.

“The prime minister is obviously at the G7 going to try and raise the prospect of seeing if the US will extend,” Mr Wallace said on Boris Johnson’s bid to get Joe Biden to push the deadline beyond 31 August.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, the minister: “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.”

Mr Wallace added: “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.”

The defence secretary claimed time was running out to evacuate remaining Britons and Afghan who worked with the British mission. “We are really down to hours now, not weeks, and we have to make sure we exploit every minute to get people out.”

Mr Wallace also made clear that the Taliban may not allow evacuation effort to continue beyond the end of the month. “The US and G7 are not the only stakeholders in this – the Taliban now have a vote and the security situation is precarious. But I would also say it’s in the Taliban interests to keep the country open.”

The Taliban has warned the US president that there will “be consequences” if he keeps any troops in Afghanistan past the end of August. Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the militant group, said the deadline set by Washington was a “red line” and must be respected.

Mr Wallace and foreign secretary Dominic Raab held talks with their Washington counterparts over the weekend to press home the desire for US troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond August.

The prime minister is due to use an emergency G7 summit on Tuesday to personally lobby Mr Biden on the issue. Mr Johnson said it was “vital that the international community works together to ensure safe evacuations”.

But the US president has signalled that he does not want US armed forces to stay in the country beyond August. “Our hope is that we don’t have to extend but there are discussions going on about how far we are.”

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that 5,725 people have been repatriated since rescue efforts began on August 13, with 3,100 of them Afghan individuals and their families.

On Sunday, 1,721 people were airlifted from Kabul by the Royal Air Force across eight flights.

Brigadier Dan Blanchford, the most senior UK military officer on the ground in Kabul, said British troops had “witnessed some harrowing scenes”, with at least seven Afghan civilians confirmed to have died outside the airfield gates amid chaotic crowds.

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