Afghan rescue ‘down to hours, not weeks’, Defence Secretary says

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Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said the Kabul evacuation effort is “down to hours now, not weeks” as he conceded Britain’s involvement will end when the US leaves Afghanistan.

The Taliban also said any attempt to continue the operation past August 31 would “provoke a reaction” as Boris Johnson prepared to press Joe Biden for an extension to the deadline.

With the UK still hoping to evacuate thousands more people, the Prime Minister will urge the US president to delay the withdrawal of forces from Kabul airport during a virtual summit of G7 leaders.

Speaking to reporters in Fort George, near Inverness, the Defence Secretary said: “The Prime Minister is, obviously at the G7, going to try and raise the prospect of seeing if the United States will extend.

“It’s really important for people to understand the United States have over 6,000 people in Kabul airport and when they withdraw that will take away the framework… and we will have to go as well.

“I don’t think there is any likelihood of staying on after the United States. If their timetable extends even by a day or two that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people.

“Because we are really down to hours now, not weeks, and we have to make sure we exploit every minute to get people out.”

Earlier, armed forces minister James Heappey conceded that the Taliban “gets a vote” on the evacuation deadline, ahead of the group seemingly ruling out a continued presence of British or American troops.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News: “This is something … you can say it’s a red line.

“President Biden announced this agreement that on August 31 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.

“It will create mistrust between us. If they are intent on continuing the occupation, so it will provoke a reaction.”

US and UK soldiers in Kabul
Members of the British and US military engaged in the evacuation of people out of Kabul (MoD/PA)

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman that “discussions on the ground” have been held with the Taliban and added: “I’ve seen the reports. I don’t think we’ve had any direct communication to that end.”

Meanwhile, it was reported that a firefight at one of the gates of Kabul’s international airport killed at least one Afghan soldier on Monday.

The Foreign Office said it had sent five extra staff to Kabul airport, taking its total working on the evacuation effort in the capital to 19.

President Joe Biden gave an update on the Afghanistan situation on Sunday
President Joe Biden gave an update on the Afghanistan situation on Sunday (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

“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,” the Labour MP said.

Mr Heappey said there are still “thousands more” people the UK wishes to evacuate, including British nationals.

The defence minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Taliban, which swept to power last week as the US withdrew its troops, “gets a vote” on the evacuation deadline.

“It’s just the reality, we could deny them the vote, we have the military power to just stay there by force, but I don’t know that the humanitarian mission we’re embarked on at the moment which is to evacuate as many people from Kabul as we possibly can is helped by Kabul becoming a warzone,” the minister said.

Mr Biden signalled on Sunday that he did not want US armed forces to stay in the central Asian country beyond August.

Asked about delaying the withdrawal of American troops during a press conference, the US president said: “Our hope is that we don’t have to extend but there are discussions going on about how far we are.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace held talks with their Washington counterparts over the weekend to call for an extension.

Government officials said there is “no fixed date” on when the UK will withdraw, but it is feared that without US boots on the ground, the remaining allied forces would be unable to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport from the crowds looking to flee the Taliban takeover, or other potential security threats.

On Sunday, 1,721 people were airlifted from Kabul by the Royal Air Force across eight flights.

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