The Foreign Secretary was on a summer break, believed to be in the Mediterranean, as the situation dramatically escalated over recent days with the Taliban regaining power.
He arrived back in the UK last night, as extremist fighters posed in the presidential palace in Kabul, and took part in the emergency meeting of ministers and officials this lunchtime.
But questions are being raised over the ‘staggering’ decision to be abroad as the Afghan government effectively collapsed after US troops withdrew.
Keir Starmer said this afternoon that ‘of course’ Mr Raab should have come back sooner, saying there was widespread anger at the ‘slow pace’ of the government’s response.
Mr Raab apparently dialed in to previous Cobra meetings on Friday and yesterday remotely.
Boris Johnson was also formally on holiday in the West Country on Saturday, and was spotted with his shirt untucked taking the train back from Taunton to Downing Street. Sources refused to rule out the premier resuming his break after the recall of parliament on Wednesday.
The backlash came amid a desperate race against the clock to evacuate thousands of Britons and Afghan allies from Kabul.
The first flight carrying those fleeing has arrived back at RAF Brize Norton.
But Defence Secretary Ben Wallace choked up this morning as he admitted that some of the Afghans who helped UK forces over the past two decades ‘won’t get back’ due to the speed of the military collapse.
As the drama intensified today:
- The US has suspended evacuation flights after footage showed several apparent stowaways tumbling from planes taking off from the airport;
- The UN Security Council met this afternoon to consider the response to the situation with Boris Johnson urging a ‘unified’ stance;
- The UK’s ambassador is still in the Afghan capital as officials try to process as many applications for refuge as possible;
- Chevening scholars from Afghanistan could be given refuge despite being told their visas were being deferred until next year.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was back in Whitehall today after returning from his holiday
Desperate Afghans run alongside a plane preparing to leave from the airport in Kabul
Families have also been pleading for more support to help British nationals who are among an estimated 4,000 trying to escape Kabul
The government has announced that the first flight carrying those fleeing has arrived back at RAF Brize Norton
Scramble to airlift 4,000 Brits and Afghan allies facing wrath of Taliban
British nationals are among an estimated 4,000 people trying to escape Taliban-controlled Kabul.
As well as citizens and diplomatic staff, there are significant numbers of interpreters and other allies who could face reprisals if they do not get out.
Some 700 UK personnel are deployed at the airport for the evacuation effort.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said it could take more than 36 hours to airlift another 1,500, suggesting nearly 800 of those will be Afghans.
Government sources said 1,000 interpreters and other staff had arrived over the past few weeks as part of a resettlement scheme. However, they said the final numbers elligible are not known.
It is not clear how the evacuation is being prioritised, with Mr Wallace stressing that vetting applications to leave at high speech is more of a challenge than maintaining flights.
Families have also been pleading for more support to help up to 3,000 British nationals who are among an estimated 4,000 people trying to escape Kabul for the UK.
Some 700 British personnel are deployed at the airport, with Mr Wallace insisting the key areas are still secure despite chaotic scenes. He said it could take more than 36 hours to get another 1,500 out, suggesting nearly 800 of those will be Afghans. Government sources said 1,000 interpreters and other staff had arrived over the past few weeks.
It is not clear how the evacuation is being prioritised, with Mr Wallace stressing that vetting applications to leave at high speech was more of a challenge than maintaining flights.
In a sign of the frantic efforts, the British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow is believed to be helping the small team of diplomats still in the country to process the applications.
There is particular concern for the safety of Afghans who worked with British forces when they were in the country as interpreters and in other roles amid fears of reprisals if they fall into the hands of the insurgents.
Mr Wallace said the crisis had become inevitable after a deal was struck with the extremists and the US pulled out, and the focus was now on evacuating British nationals, interpreters and others who might be subject to reprisals.
But he conceded that ‘some people won’t get back’. ‘It is sad the West has done what it has done,’ he said. ‘Twenty years of sacrifice.. is what it is.’
Mr Wallace – who himself served in the military before entering politics – said he felt the issue so deeply because he was a soldier.
The comments came amid rising fury about the dramatic developments in Afghanistan, after Joe Biden stepped up the timetable for withdrawing US troops.
Tories have accused ministers of displaying ‘boredom’ in their attitude towards the long-running military campaign, branding the defeat the worst foreign policy setback since Suez.
Former national security adviser Lord Sedwill said it was an ‘humiliating’ moment for the West and warned terror groups would be ’emboldened’.
The peer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘This is a humiliating moment for the West.
‘Afghan citizens are fearful, extremists everywhere will be emboldened, they’ve been quieter since the end of Islamic State – they will be emboldened.’
The Taliban insist they are seeking a peaceful takeover of power and will not persecute those who had worked with the Afghan government or with foreign forces.
However those assurances were being treated with deep scepticism by many British MPs amid reports of threats to those who remain and their families.
Labour has called on the Government to urgently expand the resettlement scheme for Afghans to ensure that none were left behind.
Boris Johnson has agreed to recall Parliament this week as he faces the fury of Tory backbenchers over Britain’s ‘humiliation’ in Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters have been posing in the presidential palace in Kabul after taking charge
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted he was ‘sad’ at the collapse of the Western-trained Afghan army after the Taliban walked into Kabul and took charge of the presidential palace
There has been chaos at the airport in the capital as desperate people try to flee the country
Boris Johnson has agreed to recall Parliament as he faces the fury of Tory backbenchers over Britain’s ‘humiliation’ in Afghanistan
MPs will hold a five-hour debate on Wednesday – the first time that they have been called back from their summer recess since 2013.
But the move was dismissed as too little, too late now that the Taliban has already seized control – with one senior Tory calling Afghanistan’s collapse ‘the biggest single policy disaster’ since the Suez Crisis in 1956.
The Prime Minister appeared to blame the US. He said it was ‘fair to say the US decision to pull out has accelerated things, but this has in many ways been a chronicle of an event foretold … we’ve known for a long time that this was the way things were going.’
Sir Keir Starmer said there was a ‘catastrophic miscalculation’ over the strength of the Taliban and the resilience of Afghan forces.
Speaking on a trip to Wolverhampton the Labour leader said: ‘I think there was a catastrophic miscalculation of, on the one hand the strength of the Taliban and the resilience of the Afghan forces.
‘And I think anybody looking at this would say the timing of this decision to withdraw – nobody wants troops in Afghanistan indefinitely – but the timing of this withdrawal and what has happened and the unravelling of 20 years of progress in a matter of weeks and days, I think everybody is saddened by that and can see the tragedy that lies behind this.’
Pressed on whether there was any prospect of troops returning to Kabul, Mr Wallace told Sky News: ‘No, look that’s not on the cards that we’re going to go back.’
He added: ‘The US have made itself clear that they’re not intending to stay and as the framework nation that leaves us with difficult choices and I’ve been pretty much honest about that all the way through this process.’
On the airlift of British nationals, he added: ‘The military flights are coming in and out, they’ve just brought in more UK soldiers.
Ex-Nato chief says Raab’s holiday amid Afghan crisis ‘staggering’
A former Nato chief has said they are ‘staggered’ Dominic Raab was on holiday as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.
Lord Robertson, a Labour minister before becoming secretary-general of the military alliance said the situation had not been taken ‘seriously’.
‘You’ve got to be on duty during that sort of period where we are so deeply and intimately involved in it,’ he told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme.
Looking at the British handling of the war in Afghanistan in the past 20 years, the former Nato secretary-general said: ‘We bear a big responsibility ourselves.
‘We never really took Afghanistan and the conflict there with the seriousness that it demanded.
‘We sent people into danger, troops into danger and people died and yet we were not fully, it would appear, committed to the campaign that was going on there.
‘I’ve been critical all along about our country not taking this situation seriously and now the chickens have come home to roost and we’re facing a humiliation and a disaster for all of our people.’
‘Border Force is joining us to make sure that we accelerate the process to get more Afghans out, which is our obligation. We flew out 370 staff and British citizens, eligible personnel yesterday and the day before and we’ll continue to engage those flights.
‘The next group of Afghans to come out will be 782 and we’ll make sure we get them in the next 24 to 36 hours out of the country and are continuing to process those people.’
He went on: ‘My job as as defence secretary is to make sure that we protect not only the UK nationals, but those Afghans we have an obligation to, that is actually why we’re in the country. For the last few weeks we’ve been in the country solely to process those people and to make sure we protect our officials doing that job and we’ll continue to do so.’
Mr Wallace – who was a captain in the Scots Guards and saw service in Northern Ireland – told LBC it will not be possible to get everyone out of Afghanistan, with the previous August 31 evacuation timetable now in tatters.
He said: ‘It’s a really deep part of regret for me … look, some people won’t get back. Some people won’t get back and we will have to do our best in third countries to process those people.’
Asked why he felt the situation ‘so personally’, Mr Wallace replied: ‘Because I’m a soldier… because it’s sad and the West has done what it’s done, we have to do our very best to get people out and stand by our obligations and 20 years of sacrifice is what it is.’
Lead elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade have been working with US forces to secure Kabul airport to ensure flights can continue as Afghans and foreigners alike scramble to leave.
Mr Wallace said the barrier to helping more people leave the country was how quickly they could be processed.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘Our flights, our planning and coming in and out and soon if we manage to keep it in the way we’re planning to, we should have capacity for over 1,000 people a day to exit to the UK. Currently this is not about capacity on planes, it’s about processing speed, so that’s why we’re trying to fix that.’
Bluntly spelling out the problems the operation faced, Mr Wallace said: ‘With the US’ removal of the framework, the military might and the speed of the Afghan government collapse, it’s simply not possible for us to send small bands of troops miles into Afghanistan to find people if they’re not able to be found.
‘It is a deep regret that we have gone to a position we have, I haven’t hidden that over the last few weeks. We are doing everything we can to get those people out.’
Asked if translators who have helped British citizens are eligible to come to the UK, he said: ‘Yes, they are. People who are eligible are people who have worked for us in what we call public-facing roles, people who’ve worked for us but are not in public-facing roles, contractors and third parties … and any other special cases.’
Outlining the process of checking people who are being flown to the UK from Afghanistan, he added: ‘We do have to make sure that some of the people we’re bringing back aren’t affiliated to either a terrorist organisation or the Taliban, which, I’m afraid, a very, very small number have been.
‘They might not have worked for us for 10, 12, 15 years, so we have to see that they are right. We’re doing our very best to make sure we do not discriminate against those people who are fully legitimate to come here.’
Challenged that the Taliban had ‘won’, Mr Wallace said: ‘I don’t know about a win, I think, I acknowledge that the Taliban are in control of the country. You don’t have to be a political scientist to spot that’s where we’re at.’
Last night Mr Johnson vowed to work with allies to prevent Afghanistan again becoming a ‘breeding ground for terrorism’.
After chairing a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee, he admitted the situation in the country was ‘extremely difficult’ and was ‘getting more difficult’.
In an apparent admission that the West is now powerless to resist the Taliban takeover, the Prime Minister said he wanted a co-ordinated response to the coup ‘in the coming months’.
He called on the international community to not ‘prematurely’ recognise any new government without agreement amid fears that Russian or China could unilaterally move to endorse the regime.
‘We want a united position among all the like-minded, as far as we can get one, so that we do whatever we can to prevent Afghanistan lapsing back into a breeding ground for terror,’ he said after meeting Team GB’s Olympic heroes at an event in Wembley.
Taliban commander ‘spent eight years in Guantanamo Bay’
A Taliban commander claimed he spent eight years in Guantanamo Bay in a triumphant speech from inside the Presidential Palace in Kabul as the militants declared an Islamic state of Afghanistan after the country’s president joined thousands of Afghan nationals in a mass exodus.
Taliban fighters marched into the ancient palace on Sunday and demanded a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ as the capital city descended into chaos, with US helicopters evacuating diplomats from the embassy in scenes echoing the 1975 Fall of Saigon which followed the Vietnam War.
There were chaotic scenes at Kabul airport where thousands of desperate Afghans are gathering in an attempt to flee the country. Fighting and stampedes broke out between passengers before commercial flights were stopped and only military planes departed the terminals which are now guarded by US troops.
The Al-Jazeera news channel livestreamed the press conference from inside the palace, which showed a group of Taliban fighters sitting at the President’s desk before a fighter claimed he was a former inmate of the US-controlled Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.
Established by George W Bush in 2002, suspected terrorists have been detained without trial and tortured at the facility. Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep the centre open indefinitely in 2018, while in February the Biden administration vowed to shut Guantanamo down.
A spokesman for the Taliban’s political office told Al-Jazeera TV on Sunday that the war is over in Afghanistan and that the type of rule and the form of regime will be clear soon.
‘What we’re dealing with now is the very likely advent of a new regime in Kabul. We don’t know exactly what kind of a regime that will be. What we want to do is make sure that we as the UK pull together our international partners, our like-minded partners, so that we deal with that regime in a concerted way.’
The Prime Minister, who yesterday held calls with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, said there should be meetings of Nato’s North Atlantic Council and the UN Security Council as soon as possible.
But senior Tories have voiced anger at the way Afghanistan has been abandoned to its fate, 20 years after international forces entered the country.
Former defence secretary Dr Liam Fox said: ‘The situation in Afghanistan has all the elements of a strategic disaster.
‘A democratic government removed by military force, a Taliban-enforced brutal Islamic State and the door opening again for Al Qaeda and similar groups who will threaten our safety and security.’
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said that the country’s collapse was ‘the biggest single policy disaster since’ the Suez Crisis in 1956. The Tory MP, who served as an Army officer in Afghanistan, said the priority had to be to get as many people out of Kabul as possible.
‘The real danger is that we are going to see every female MP murdered, we are going to see ministers strung up on street lamps,’ he told BBC News.
Tobias Ellwood, a former captain in the British Army and chairman of the defence select committee, criticised the West for pulling out of Afghanistan.
Appearing on Sky News, he said: ‘The world is now a little bit more dangerous because they’ve now taken control of the country, and the West should really hang its head in shame after abruptly abandoning Afghanistan to a civil war after two decades of effort.’
He added: ‘This is not a good day for the West at all, and China will be observing things very, very closely indeed. They are already making alliances with the Taliban and glossing over the human rights atrocities that are likely to unfold.’
MPs who want to speak at the debate will have to be in the chamber as virtual arrangements are no longer in place. Peers will also hold an emergency sitting in the Lords.
The last time MPs were recalled during summer recess was in 2013 following the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
MARK ALMOND: This Afghanistan disaster will fuel fresh terror in West
By Mark Almond for the Daily Mail
As the West’s orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan yesterday degenerated into a panic-stricken race for the exits, the question is: How on earth did the Taliban succeed in defeating a much larger army, with far superior weaponry, in such a short space of time?
After all, the Afghan security services had 180,000 combat troops to call upon, while even the most generous estimates of the Taliban’s strength put it at 85,000 fighters.
The answer lies to a great degree in a matter as prosaic as hard cash. Many Afghan soldiers had not been paid for months.
There have been widespread reports that ever since President Biden announced the withdrawal of US troops, corrupt officials at the Ministry of Defence in Kabul have been stashing funds earmarked for soldiers’ pay into their own offshore bank accounts in Zurich (Switzerland) and Doha (Qatar).
The Afghan security services had 180,000 combat troops to call upon, while even the most generous estimates of the Taliban’s strength put it at 85,000 fighters. Taliban fighters are pictured above
Faced with bloodthirsty Taliban fighters on the one hand and no support from the US Marines on the other, it’s hardly surprising that so many unpaid government troops surrendered and handed over their weapons, often with the added incentive of a $500 handout from the enemy to fund their journey home.
Some were even prepared to take off their uniforms, grow a beard and join the winning side.
The Taliban is certainly well-placed to display such largesse. Thanks to its stranglehold on Afghanistan’s multi-billion-dollar opium trade and revenue from a growing number of customs points, its income has shot up in recent weeks.
The great Prussian Field Marshal Moltke used to tell students in the military academy that ‘the greatest good deed in war is the speedy ending of the war’. He meant that a drawn-out battle for supremacy would only add to the death toll on both sides. You could argue that the Taliban’s lightning takeover of Afghanistan in a few weeks shows that they have taken on board the Moltke doctrine.
They took city after city without a fight and without bloodshed on the scale that many had feared. In the short term, at least, they will be focused on consolidating power rather than seeking retribution.
There have been widespread reports that ever since President Biden announced the withdrawal of US troops, corrupt officials at the Ministry of Defence in Kabul have been stashing funds earmarked for soldiers’ pay into their own offshore bank accounts in Zurich (Switzerland) and Doha (Qatar)
They have certainly shown their shrewdness in the past. While the Taliban may be fanatics, they are not stupid.
Once a town has been over-run, one of their first priorities is to ensure that the people who operate utilities such as the water works and the electricity supply turn up for work.
And they are no slouches when it comes to imposing law and order either. If you are prepared to hang people from the lamp-posts and chop off hands, opposition tends to fade away relatively quickly.
People may not like their daughters being banned from attending school, and their wives being sacked from their jobs and ordered into a burka, but most will quickly come to the conclusion that resistance is useless.
Yet despite its claims to be a different beast from the Taliban of old, the reality is far darker.
Reports are rife of revenge killings, girls as young as 12 abducted from their families to be married off to Taliban fighters, and people being beaten for infractions as petty as playing pop music.
So the people of Afghanistan have a grim future in prospect – but there could be serious consequences for us in the West.
Thousands of Taliban prisoners have been released from government-run prison camps in the past few days.
Among their number are likely to be scores of Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists who arrived from abroad to fight the Americans in Afghanistan. Now they’re on the loose and free to plot terrorist attacks back in their home countries – or on us in the West.
What makes this debacle different from the Americans’ hasty retreat from Saigon in 1975 is the existence across the West of small cells of radical Islamists who will be inspired by our humiliating retreat from Kabul.
There were no Vietcong cells in London waiting to be activated then. Today things are different.
The humiliation of the West in Afghanistan has set Islamist fundamentalism back on a roll. Having seen off the Russians three decades ago and the Americans today, their sense of invincibility is almost certainly going to fuel radicalism here.
Let’s hope our domestic security services are more clued up on the dangers than the foreign office and MI6 were about the stability of the house of cards in Afghanistan.
Worse for the wider world is the reality that the West’s rivals such as Russia, China and Iran are looking on at us running away with our tails between our legs.
What other minor allies of ours, with armies lavishly trained and equipped on the Afghan model, could be gobbled up next?
Not since August 1939, has Britain enjoyed such an ominous ‘holiday’ season.
Mark Almond is director of The Crisis Research Institute, Oxford