British officials have opened talks with the Taliban about getting UK citizens and allies out of Afghanistan, it emerged last night.
Special envoy Sir Simon Gass has met senior representatives of the group in Qatar to try to secure safe passage for those left behind following the chaotic military withdrawal.
Downing Street confirmed ‘broad discussions’ with the Taliban had got under way earlier tonight.
A government source said: ‘The Prime Minister’s special representative for Afghan transition, Simon Gass, has travelled to Doha and is meeting with senior Taliban representatives to underline the importance of safe passage out of Afghanistan for British nationals, and those Afghans who have worked with us over the past 20 years.’
Sources declined to comment further on the talks. But ministers have made clear that future aid payments and the unfreezing of assets will depend on the Taliban’s willingness to facilitate safe passage and respect human rights.
Talks with the group are likely to be controversial however, given the radical group’s record and the threats to many Afghan translators who worked with British forces.
The move, which marks a significant moment for the UK, comes after Dominic Raab said the number of British nationals left behind in Afghanistan is in the ‘low hundreds’.
Boris Johnson’s special representative for Afghan transition, Simon Gass (pictured), entered talks with senior Taliban leaders
Mr Raab said the number of Brits still in the country is ‘now down at a very low level’ after 5,000 were brought home since April this year.
However, it remains unclear how many Afghan citizens who worked for the British Government are stranded after the withdrawal of Western forces was completed.
The dramatic developments came as:
- Taliban militants celebrated ‘independence day’ following the final withdrawal of US forces on Sunday night;
- Astonishing pictures showed their fighters holding American-made weapons and posing for jubilant selfies in abandoned military aircraft;
- Defence Secretary Ben Wallace pledged that all those left behind would be offered individual help to escape;
- Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tried to spread the blame for the Afghan crisis to other departments as he prepared for a grilling by MPs today;
- The Foreign Office risked further criticism after announcing that just 15 extra staff would be deployed to neighbouring countries to help refugees;
- Ministers suggested Britain could lead bombing raids in Afghanistan against Isis-K terrorists under plans being drawn up by the RAF;
- The US-UK ‘special relationship’ came under renewed strain as recriminations flew between Washington and London over the Kabul airport terror attack.
The Government has not given a concrete figure, with Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly saying yesterday that it was ‘impossible’ to put a number on how many people have been left behind.
Asked how many eligible people had been left in the country by the UK, Mr Raab told Sky News: ‘Look, of course, we lament the fact that anyone will be left behind.
‘I would just say that since April when we have been planning and instituting this, over 17,000 British nationals, Afghan workers, vulnerable special cases are out.
‘I know that the number of UK nationals, the particular responsibility of the Foreign Office, is now down at a very low level.’
Asked if he could be more specific on how many British nationals were still in the country, he said: ‘Well, low hundreds given that we have taken in total 5,000 out, and most of those are difficult cases where it is not clear around eligibility because they are undocumented.
‘We have now put in place the arrangements with third countries, or we are putting them in place.
‘I have spoken to some of the key third countries, so have other ministers, to make sure that we can make sure that we can have a workable route through for those outstanding cases.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘It’s very difficult to give you a firm figure. I can tell you that for UK nationals we’ve secured since April over 5,000, and we’re in the low hundreds (remaining).’
It is unclear how many of those British nationals who are still in the country have decided to stay of their own volition.
The Government has suggested that eligible people could cross into a third country next to Afghanistan in order to get to Britain now the airlift operation out of Kabul has ended.
But Mr Raab conceded that such journeys could be a ‘challenge’, telling Sky News: ‘Well, that is a challenge which is why we are holding very squarely the Taliban to their explicit assurances, they have made them bilaterally to us, they have made them to other countries… that they must allow safe passage, not just for our nationals but other Afghans, particularly vulnerable ones, who wish to leave.’
Joe Biden meanwhile delivered a defiant defence of the US pullout, claiming the evacuation had been ‘an extraordinary success’.
Dominic Raab said the number of Brits still in Afghanistan is ‘now down at a very low level’ after 5,000 were brought home since April this year
It remains unclear how many Afghan citizens who worked for the British Government are stranded after the withdrawal of Western forces was completed
In an address to the nation last night, the US President denied the withdrawal could have been achieved in a more orderly fashion and insisted he could not have extended ‘the forever war’.
It also emerged yesterday that Britain will send just 15 extra staff to help process the claims of Afghans fleeing the clutches of the Taliban.
Downing Street yesterday said an unspecified number of ‘surge staff’ would be sent to neighbouring countries to process the claims of those Afghans who manage to make it to the border.
But the Foreign Office last night said this would amount to just 15 extra officials who will be sent to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Mr Raab said the further staff would ‘reinforce our embassy teams on the ground to help those in need’.
Sources said the officials had all been highly trained in ‘crisis response’.
However, the modest scale of the deployment is likely to raise eyebrows among those critical of the Government’s actions so far.
Mr Raab has faced questions about why he has failed to follow the lead of German counterpart Heiko Maas who has visited five of Afghanistan’s neighbours in recent days.
The EU is drawing up a £500million aid package for Afghan’s neighbours to help them deal with refugees arriving from the war-torn country, in the hope of preventing a new wave of asylum seekers heading to Europe.