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The foreign secretary has threatened the Taliban with sanctions if they fail to protect human rights in Afghanistan and said everyone “has been surprised by the scale and pace” they have taken over.
Dominic Raab spoke to the media on Monday afternoon after cutting short his holiday in Cyprus to deal with the escalating crisis in Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken significant control of the country in recent days after Western forces moved to pull out their remaining troops.
Raab said in the past week 289 Afghans who have worked for the British government over the years have flown to the UK for asylum, with another 150 British nationals being repatriated tonight, and a further 350 expected to arrive in the coming days.
“We’re using our G7 presidency to make very clear to the Taliban that we will hold them to account for their commitment, and never to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terror, to hold a more inclusive government, and to protect the most essential human rights including respecting the rights of women,” he said.
Raab insisted this would be possible despite troops having left the country. “Through working with our partners, through everything from the sanctions that we can apply to the ODA (Official Development Assistance) that we will hold back pending reform, and a more inclusive government,” he said.
The Cabinet minister has faced criticism for not taking charge of the situation earlier, with reports he failed to speak to UK ambassadors in neighbouring countries in recent days.
The Telegraph suggested he had not talked to the foreign minister of Pakistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, until yesterday when the Taliban entered Kabul.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy accused him of “going AWOL” during the crisis, an accusation Raab has dismissed.
“Everyone was caught by surprise by the pace and the scale of the Taliban takeover,” he added.
Raab said he had been in close contact with government colleagues over the last week.
“You can see what we’ve delivered with 150 British nationals who are going to be arriving back in the UK tomorrow morning,” he continued.
“I’ve been engaged in all the Cobra meetings I’ve been engaged with our international partners. I talked to foreign minister Qureshi from Pakistan on Sunday, I’ll be speaking to [US secretary of state] Tony Blinken later today.
This lunchtime Boris Johnson chaired a third emergency Cobra meeting in four days over the worsening situation in Afghanistan, and earlier his official spokesman said the UK will continue the evacuation effort from the country for “as long as we are able to do so and as long as it is safe to do so”.
He confirmed some refugees who do not have a passport will be allowed to arrive here as part of plans to protect those who worked with Western allies from Taliban retribution.
Those who helped British forces and had applied to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) but haven’t been able to obtain their paperwork will be allowed to enter the UK.
The ARAP scheme offers relocation to Afghans who face intimidation or threat to life because of their employment by the UK government.
The PM’s spokesperson said there would be “significant numbers flying out day-by-day”, and said the British ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, was working from the airport in Kabul alongside Home Office staff, diplomatic workers, and the armed services, to process visas.
They confirmed that the UK is waiving visa requirements for Afghans who’ve got British family members.
“There are people on the ground who can consider visa applications and there are some rules as regards to those who have family members that can be considered on case by case basis, but we have already removed a large number of Afghan nationals under the ARAP scheme, and we’ll continue to do so,” they said.
The spokesperson said the government is “seeking to do everything possible, putting in extra resources and streamlining that process so we can relocate people faster”, but said the passport waiver will only cover those who have already applied to the ARAP scheme.
It is expected that the evacuation operation will continue throughout this month, although the prime minister’s spokesperson noted that “our offer is open-ended, we haven’t put an end date on that”.
They added: “We want to obviously continue to do this as long as we are able to do so and as long as it is safe to do so.”
But earlier today defence secretary Ben Wallace warned that “some people won’t get back” from Afghanistan as the Taliban took over.
The former soldier, who served in the Scots Guards, appeared to choke up as he told LBC: “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.”
The former Cabinet minister Lord Hammond warned of a “humanitarian crisis but no doubt in time a counter-terrorism crisis for the West”.
The Conservative peer, who served as defence secretary, foreign secretary and Chancellor, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “This is a terrible failure of Western strategy, it feels to me that for the last few years we have managed to keep the lid on the situation in Afghanistan.
“We did that collectively with, in the latter years, really rather small numbers of troops and rather modest commitment of military resources and I think it is a bit of an indictment of the direction of Western policy and our lack of ability to see our own medium and longer-term self-interest that we’ve withdrawn that rather modest support at American instigation, and the result has been this.
“Not just a humanitarian crisis but no doubt in time a counter-terrorism crisis for the West. This is essentially a policy that has been made in the US.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there was an “obligation” to those in Afghanistan who had helped the UK effort, and called for “safe and legal routes for refugees” to be set up as the crisis grows.
Speaking on a visit to Wolverhampton, he said: “We need to get UK nationals out, but we also have an obligation to all of those Afghans who helped and assisted the UK, and we shouldn’t have nice distinctions between this type of person, this type of help, and that type of help.
“If those in Afghan have helped us, the UK, in our work in Afghanistan, we have got an obligation to them.”
The chair of the Commons international development committee, Labour MP Sarah Champion, said: ”Faced with the terrifying prospect of a return to draconian rule, Afghans fearing for their futures, their families and, some, their lives are fleeing. Anywhere will do.
“The hard-won freedoms of the past decade have been obliterated in a matter of weeks. The situation facing women and girls is especially worrying.
“The international community must do all it can to get survivors out safely and the UK Government must play a full part, leading by example in fulfilling any pledged donations quickly and completely.
“Doing anything else will be a betrayal of the Afghan people and the legacy of the soldiers who lost their lives in the pursuit of their freedom.”
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