Boris Johnson faces a make-or-break test of his international clout on Tuesday, as he attempts to persuade Joe Biden at a summit called by the prime minister to grant a few additional days to evacuate desperate Afghans and foreigners away from the clutches of the Taliban.
The UK accepts that its troops cannot remain in Kabul beyond the US pull-out, currently scheduled for 31 August, and Downing Street effectively acknowledged that Taliban cooperation will be needed to continue its airlift even if President Biden agrees an extension. But defence secretary Ben Wallace said there were thousands of people who the UK still hopes to help in the “hours not weeks” that remain, and that Britain would “make sure we exploit every minute to get people out”.
A Taliban spokesman warned of “consequences” if foreign powers attempt to retain a military presence in the country beyond the “red line” deadline of Tuesday next week.
But UK government sources indicated that no direct communication had been received to this effect from the militant group, which captured the Afghan capital last week after 20 years, and it was unclear how willing the new regime in Kabul will be to take a more moderate line.
In comments released ahead of Tuesday’s video conference, Mr Johnson made no mention of his plans to join with other international leaders, including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, to seek more time from Mr Biden, instead focusing on the need for aid and resettlement schemes to give Afghanistan a chance of a more stable future.
The prime minister said he would urge G7 nations – joined on the call by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres and Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg – to match UK commitments to double humanitarian aid to the region to £286m and take in 20,000 Afghan refugees.
But with the UK’s aid boost failing to make up for Mr Johnson’s previous cuts and only 5,000 resettlements envisaged in the coming year, the G7 response will be an important marker of how much influence the PM retains internationally.
“Our first priority is to complete the evacuation of our citizens and those Afghans who have assisted our efforts over the last 20 years – but as we look ahead to the next phase, it’s vital we come together as an international community and agree a joint approach for the longer term,” said Mr Johnson.
“That’s why I’ve called an emergency meeting of the G7 – to coordinate our response to the immediate crisis, to reaffirm our commitment to the Afghan people, and to ask our international partners to match the UK’s commitments to support those in need.
“Together with our partners and allies, we will continue to use every humanitarian and diplomatic lever to safeguard human rights and protect the gains made over the last two decades. The Taliban will be judged by their deeds and not their words.”
A meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee chaired by Mr Johnson on Monday heard that the UK had secured the evacuation of almost 6,000 people from Kabul since Operation Pitting began last week, including British nationals and their dependants, embassy staff, and Afghan nationals under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) programme.
But thousands more are entitled to help, believed to include figures involved in Afghan civil society, women’s rights and democratic politics who may not have worked directly with UK organisations.
With several days needed to arrange the final withdrawal of British troops ahead of US departure, the defence secretary accepted that not all of those eligible will be evacuated, whatever the final deadline is. But he stressed that the UK will continue efforts to get them to Britain, whether from Afghanistan or neighbouring countries in which they seek refuge.
“I don’t think there is any likelihood of staying on after the United States,” said Mr Wallace. “If their timetable extends even by a day or two, that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people.
“We are really down to hours now, not weeks, and we have to make sure we exploit every minute to get people out.”
But he added: “Of course, the United States and the G7 are not the only stakeholders in this, the Taliban now have a vote and the security situation is precarious, and I think that’s why we have to see what we can do.”
France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris was “concerned” about the US deadline, while German counterpart Heiko Maas said the G7 meeting needed to agree on an extension as well as improved access to the airport, where chaotic scenes have prevented the delivery of tonnes of medical supplies.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson confirmed that Taliban acquiescence was likely to be needed for any extension of the evacuation period to be “feasible”. Cooperation with the group’s commanders on the ground had enabled processing of evacuees to be stepped up in recent days, he said.
But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen described the end of this month as “a red line” which could not be breached.
Speaking to Sky News in Qatar, Dr Shaheen said: “President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that.
“If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations – the answer is no. Or there would be consequences.
“It will create mistrust between us. If they are intent on continuing the occupation it will provoke a reaction.”
Mr Wallace said it was “in the Taliban’s interest to keep the country open” and allow people to cross its borders following the removal of international forces.
“I would think the Taliban want the airport to function and that means in the not-too-distant future, people that are eligible will be able to leave the country and make their way either overland, or indeed on flights to the Emirates and other parts of the world, which has been the norm up to date,” he said.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said Tuesday’s summit was “a make-or-break test of the prime minister’s ability to bring together international partners, rise to the occasion and show leadership”.
Ms Nandy said he should demand the extension of the air bridge out of Kabul, global agreement on keeping borders open for refugees, and a strategy to help those left behind, adding: “The prime minister has had 18 months to plan for this – the world’s eyes are on tomorrow’s meeting to make the next seven days count.”
Former Labour PM Gordon Brown, now UN envoy for global education, said the G7 meeting should agree $8bn (£5.9bn) in aid for Afghan education over 20 years, on condition of the protection of girls’ access to schools.
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said Mr Johnson must use the meeting to help secure safe passage for refugees out of Afghanistan.
“If we cannot evacuate Afghans, the least we can do is work with the international community – especially neighbouring countries such as Pakistan – and use every diplomatic lever possible to try and secure a safe route out of the country for those who wish to flee the Taliban,” said Sir Ed.
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