As Britain continues to navigate the complexities of airlifting UK citizens and Afghans out of Kabul, James Heappey echoed comments from cabinet ministers that the government cannot “confidently say” all British nationals will be evacuated.
The minister revealed, however, that 1,721 people had been airlifted out of the country in the past 24 hours by the royal air force, which he added was currently increasing its capacity.
Despite several deaths occurring in the vicinity of the airport over the weekend, Mr Heappey said the queue was now “flowing better”, insisting that individuals with instructions from the UK government to come forward should have the “confidence” to do so.
Boris Johnson said on Sunday he will convene a meeting of the G7 leaders on Tuesday for “urgent talks” on the situation in Afghanistan, stressing it was “vital the international community works together to ensure safe evacuations” from Hamid Karzai international airport.
The announcement comes amid concerns that US troops pulling out of the airport by 31 August could jeopardise efforts to evacuate all British nationals and Afghans provided with visas by the government.
Last week, according to Bloomberg, a Pentagon press secretary said the “mandate by the president is to complete the mission by 31 August” and Joe Biden has previously vowed to remove all troops from the region by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Speaking on Thursday, however, the US president suggested the end of the month deadline may be extended, insisting: “If there’s American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out.”
Pressed on Sky News on how important it was that Mr Biden approves an extension of the deadline, the armed forces minister Mr Heappey said: “We assume nothing.
“You know the foreign secretary has made representations to his opposite number and the secretary of defence likewise. If the programme is extended, then there is the opportunity to continue with flights.”
Mr Heappey added, however, that the Taliban insurgency that seized the country’s capital, Kabul, seven days ago, would “get a vote in that too”.
“It’s not just a decision made in Washington, and so I think it’s important, to make another point, is people shouldn’t despair that whenever the airbridge, the military airbridge, ends, that that is the end of their chances leaving Afghanistan.
“The home secretary [Priti Patel] has announced that there will be other routes into the resettlement programme from around the wider region, through maybe handling centres in refugee camps, through embassies, through high commissioners,” he said.
Mr Heappey also rejected assertions from the former prime minister Tony Blair, who used a 2,700-word article at the weekend to suggest Britain could be relegated to a “second division of global powers” as he criticised the lack of UK involvement in the US decision to withdraw troops.
“No, I think that is not absolutely true and if I look around the world at what the UK is doing now, there’s evidence to the contrary,” the minister said.
He added: “What is happening in Afghanistan right now in terms of the humanitarian challenge is clearly very distressing, but the withdrawal from Afghanistan is something that we have been expecting for some time, which is a consequence of Donald Trump’s Doha agreement which meant a decision needed to be taken this year.
“Everywhere else around the world – the United States and the United Kingdom are working together to be the force of good that we want to be. And I don’t think we should allow what is going on in Afghanistan to somehow persuade us that all of that wider international effort has relegated us somehow. I don’t recognise that at all.”
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