UK evacuation from Kabul to end within ‘24 to 36 hours’, defence sources say | Afghanistan

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Britain’s evacuation from Kabul is expected to end within “24 to 36 hours”, potentially abandoning thousands of Afghans, defence sources said as the increasingly bullish Taliban moved to prevent them travelling to the airport to flee.

The US president, Joe Biden, rejected pleas from the UK for the humanitarian airlift to continue beyond 31 August at a virtual meeting of G7 leaders on Tuesday, triggering claims from Conservative MPs that the “special relationship” is over and that US-UK relations were “about to enter their lowest point since Suez”.

After the G7, UK defence sources told the Guardian that the US military is believed to need two to three days to close down its operations at Kabul airport, and British troops want to be at least 24 hours ahead of that – leaving a small window for RAF flights evacuating those at risk from the Taliban’s takeover. All western forces are set to leave within days.

A statement from Boris Johnson after the G7 summit focused on what he called a “roadmap for future engagement with the Taliban”, a tacit acceptance that world leaders are powerless in the face of the group’s takeover of Afghanistan after the 20-year war.

The UK prime minister did not mention sanctions, but instead set out conditions for unfreezing billions of dollars in aid, including the education of girls up to the age of 18. “If those huge funds are going to be unfrozen eventually for use by the government and people of Afghanistan, then what we’re saying is Afghanistan can’t lurch back into being a breeding ground of terror, it can’t become a narco state, girls will be educated up to the age of 18, and so on,” he said.

On Tuesday night, Biden’s press secretary confirmed the withdrawal would finish by 31 August. Jen Psaki said: “During a meeting this morning with the G7 leaders, the president conveyed that our mission in Kabul will end based on the achievement of our objectives.

“He confirmed we are currently on pace to finish by 31 August and … he also made clear that with each day of operations on the ground, we have added risk to our troops with increasing threats from Isis-K, and that completion of the mission by 31 August depends on continued coordination with the Taliban, including continued access for evacuees to the airport.”

Britain is among nations pushing to establish whether a civilian-run airport in Afghanistan could be used after 31 August, possibly operated by Turkey, in the hope that those at risk from the Taliban – including human rights activists, judges, prosecutors and LGBTQ+ advocates – will be able to find a route to safety.

The US refusal to extend its presence in the Afghan capital was anticipated, not least as the Pentagon had ruled out a change of plan while the G7 meeting was still taking place, but it prompted significant anger among Tory MPs and ministers.

“UK-US relations are about to enter their lowest point since Suez,” one senior MP said. “The special relationship is very, very damaged.” Another said: “We have always pretended there’s a special relationship with the US and Washington has always let us.” A minister added: “Biden’s America seems to have chosen to back off just when it was obvious only they could step up.”

Such fury remains largely focused on Biden, but Downing Street will be aware that the G7 meeting will be seen as another sign of Johnson’s limited sway with the White House.

Boris Johnson insists on safe passage out of Afghanistan beyond 31 August – video
Boris Johnson insists on safe passage out of Afghanistan beyond 31 August – video

Speaking after the meeting, Johnson accepted it had been impossible to persuade Biden to extend US troops’ role beyond their stated deadline of 31 August given both his domestic political priorities and the Taliban’s insistence that foreign troops must leave by then.

“You’ve heard what the president of the United States has had to say. You’ve heard what the Taliban have said,” Johnson said. “I think you’ve got to understand the context in which we’re doing this. We’re confident we can get thousands more out, but the situation at the airport is not getting any better.”

He said the UK had evacuated 9,000 people on 57 flights from Kabul, including 2,000 in 24 hours, and thought to include most single-nationality Britons. Aid agencies fear Afghans eligible for resettlement by virtue of links to the UK – such as interpreters and embassy staff – are at risk of being left behind, alongside a list of civil society leaders and former government officials compiled by the Foreign Office.

France, Germany and Italy had joined the UK in seeking an extension to the deadline beyond 31 August. After the G7 meeting the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said his country’s forces would stay on as needed.

Johnson said the “number-one condition” for engagement with the Taliban would be guaranteed safe passage for people who wanted to leave the country up to the end of August and beyond, but this appeared more based on hope than leverage.

Addressing a Taliban press conference earlier on Tuesday, the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said it would not agree to evacuation flights after 31 August, and told Afghan nationals to stop going to the airport. Experts such as engineers were being flown out, Mujahid said, adding: “We ask them to stop this process.”

People queue to board a US military aircraft at Kabul airport
People queue to board a US military aircraft at Kabul airport. Photograph: Senior Airman Taylor Crul/US Air Force/DVIDS/EPA

A joint G7 communique said the evacuation programme was the “immediate priority” and leaders expressed “our grave concern about the situation in Afghanistan and call for calm and restraint to ensure the safety and security of vulnerable Afghan and international citizens, and the prevention of a humanitarian crisis”.

Separately, the EU announced it was freezing €1bn in development aid it has set aside for Afghanistan over the next seven years as Brussels sought to use its financial leverage to secure assurances over the treatment of women and minority groups.

The conduct of the Taliban regime in the coming days, particularly around maintaining free passage for EU officials, Afghan staff and political refugees , was also highlighted by Charles Michel, the European council president, as a condition of financial support.

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said EU member states would receive financial help if they “stepped up” to take in refugees. There has been a mixed response from EU governments on the issue in recent days. The rightwing governments in Hungary and Austria have said they will not accept any refugees, but Spain has offered itself as a hub to take in Afghans who have worked with western powers.

As the G7 meeting began, the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group, an umbrella organisation for NGOs working in the country, said much more needed to be done to remove people.

“While we welcome the efforts being made to evacuate Afghan civil society activists from Kabul airport, huge numbers will be left behind once the airlift ends,” said Elizabeth Winter, its executive director. “The UK’s offer to resettle just 5,000 Afghans this year is inadequate and lacks the urgency needed to help the many thousands of people at risk.”

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