We didn’t want to leave Afghanistan this way, Boris Johnson says

Prime minister offers diplomatic recognition to Taliban if they respect women, protect refugees, and renounce terror

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Sunday 29 August 2021 12:50
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Boris Johnson admits 'we would not have wished to leave in this way' on Afghanistan

Boris Johnson has spoken of his regret at the manner of withdrawal from Afghanistan, telling the public: "We would not have wished to leave in this way".

In a statement released after the evacuation of the last UK personnel, the prime minister suggested his hand had been forced by the US – as he promised to "engage with the Taliban" on the basis of their actions.

Mr Johnson dangled the possibility of diplomatic recognition and unfrozen bank accounts for Afghanistan's new de facto rulers – if they respected the rights of women and girls, swore off harbouring international terror groups, and gave safe passage to refugees fleeing the country.

And the prime minister spoke of his respect for those who had carried out the operation and said the airlift had been "the culmination of a mission unlike anything we've seen in our lifetimes".

Explaining who had been evacuated, Mr Johnson said the thousands of Afghans who had been given safe passage had "proved their loyalty to this country beyond doubt".

"UK troops and officials have worked around the clock to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions," he said.

"They have expended all the patience and care and thought they possess to help people in fear for their lives.

"They've seen at first-hand barbaric terrorist attacks on the queues of people they were trying to comfort, as well as on our American friends.

"They didn't flinch. They kept calm. They got on with the job.

"It's thanks to their colossal exertions that this country has now processed, checked, vetted and airlifted more than 15,000 people to safety in less than two weeks."

The prime minister’s statement came after the Observer newspaper reported that thousands of emails to the Foreign Office from MPs and charities raising urgent cases of Afghans trying to escape the country have not been read.

And The Independent has revealed that dozens of Afghan interpreters who worked for the British Army have been told they will not be allowed into the UK because they are a “danger to [national] security”.

On Sunday following the PM’s statement, the former head of the British Army accused the government of being "asleep on watch" in relation to the protection of Afghans.

General Lord Richard Dannatt said the government's approach was "unfathomable" and that the issue of Afghanistan had been put "on the back burner".

"On the particular issue of those who we knew were in danger, people who had worked for us, interpreters, former locally-engaged civilians, this issue has been in the media," Lord Dannatt told Times Radio.

"This issue has been on politicians' desks for two to three years and, certainly, it's been there during the course of this year."

He added: "I mean, you might remember, back in July, 45 senior officers wrote to the Government, an open letter to the Government, saying there are people we are concerned about and if we don't do the right thing, their blood will be on our hands.

"It is unfathomable why it would appear that the Government was asleep on watch. "I think the issue of Afghanistan sat on the backburner. Maybe it started to come forward. But then, suddenly, when the Taliban took over the country in the precipitate fashion in which they did, it fell off the cooker straight onto the kitchen floor and we've ... had this chaotic extraction."

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government must not abandon those who had been left behind.

“I pay tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces who have done so much to provide the opportunity of a new life to so many as part of Operation Pitting," he said.

“We have seen the best of British from those on the ground in Afghanistan. Our diplomatic staff and military personnel should be proud of the heroic work they have done and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

“It is now for the government to urgently set out a plan for those tragically left behind who face a fearful future. MPs of all parties are dealing with hundreds of cases of those we have a duty to help. The end of military operations does not end our responsibilities to those in Afghanistan.”

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