Britain: Kabul evacuations can only take place while US controls airport

UK rejects claims that some evacuation flights are nearly empty because of Taliban’s ring of steel

Britain's efforts to evacuate Afghans linked to its 20-year presence in the country faces a potential deadline as London conceded it would have to cease operations at Kabul's airport when US forces pull out.

Britain's Defence Minister Ben Wallace said on Thursday the UK effort was reliant on the 6,000 soldiers on the ground who are “doing everything from the control tower to the firefighters”. The UK has about 900 paratroopers in Kabul engaged in securing its own evacuation centre and loading flights.

President Joe Biden has suggested that US troops may stay in Kabul past the August 31 deadline if any of its citizens remain but the Taliban is unlikely to want the Americans to remain beyond then.

“We will stay as long as the US forces are running that airport. They are running that airport. In that sense, if the US stay that gives us an opportunity to continue this,” Mr Wallace told the BBC.

The UK's failure to make an independent offer of support for the Afghan government following America's unilateral withdrawal decision was heavily criticised in Parliament during a special session on Wednesday with former prime minister Theresa May leading the attacks on the government for its acceptance of the White House decision.

But Mr Wallace said the UK's resettlement scheme would not end even after Britain left Afghanistan, with investments into processing centres in third countries already being made. He has conceded that “some will be left behind” because of the current situation.

The Taliban are allowing entry through their ring of steel to Kabul airport for those eligible for evacuation flights.

But with large numbers still congesting the area around the airport, Mr Wallace said British soldiers were having to engage in “crowd control” of Afghans who are there in the hope that they can flee Kabul.

“It is very, very difficult for those soldiers dealing with some desperate, desperate people,” he said.

Mr Wallace said seven to 10 Royal Air Force planes were departing a day, with at least 138 passengers set to be aboard the next flight.

He rejected reports that some were leaving Kabul were nearly empty.

“Our people are getting through, we haven't sent a single empty plane home,” he said.

“And I don't think many other nations have. I can't speak for other nations, obviously, but fundamentally, the key here is when we have a plane, if we have a single empty seat we will offer it to other nations.

“We've taken out interpreters who work for Nato, for example, we've taken out fellow European or others … we took some Japanese people out recently who were in need, so we will use every space on our planes possible,” he told Times Radio.

Mr Wallace told the BBC that “things are changing rapidly” and “every hour counts” when it comes to evacuations.

The events of recent weeks have called into question the authority of Western powers not just in Afghanistan. "What I'm uncomfortable with is that we have a world order now where resolve is perceived by our adversaries as weak, the West's resolve," Wallace said.

"That is something we should all worry about: if the West is seen not to have resolve and it fractures, then our adversaries like Russia find that encouraging," he added.

In Kabul there is no scope for the Western countries to collect people except at the airport. The Taliban have said they will allow safe passage to Kabul’s airport, but there are concerns that some Afghans are too scared to leave their homes to attempt the journey.

The airport has been a scene of chaos as thousands try to flee and at least 12 people have been killed in the area.

Mr Wallace was asked about footage which showed a young child being handed over a wall to Western soldiers at Kabul airport.

He said the child was passed over the wall as her family were being taken out.

“We can't just take a minor on their own. You will find, as you see in the footage I think you're showing now, the child was taken – that will be because the family will be taken as well.”

“It will be the challenge trying to make it through that crowd. We are finding other ways of dealing with that but that is what's happening.”

Updated: August 19th 2021, 12:31 PM
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