The G7 group of nations has agreed a “roadmap” for future engagement with the Taliban and will insist on the “safe passage” of people who want to leave Afghanistan beyond 31 August, Boris Johnson has said.
Speaking after a virtual G7 summit about the evacuation of people from Afghanistan, the prime minister said: “The number one condition we’re setting as G7 is that they have got to guarantee, right the way through, through 31 August and beyond, safe passage for those who want to come out.
“Some will say that they don’t accept that and some, I hope, will see the sense of that, because the G7 has very considerable leverage – economic, diplomatic and political.”
An image released by the White House showing Joe Biden as he addresses an emergency G7 call on the Afghanistan crisis
Mr Johnson was expected to use the talks to press US President Joe Biden to extend the deadline for pulling out his remaining troops from Afghanistan to allow evacuations to continue.
But the president has decided not to extend the deadline.
Speaking at the White House, Mr Biden said the US was “on pace” to finish its evacuation process by 31 August and “the sooner we finish the better”.
But he added the completion of operations in Kabul “depends upon the Taliban continuing to cooperate” and contingency plans were being developed to “adjust the timetable should that become necessary”.
The PM, who did not directly reference his extension call in a broadcast pool clip after the summit, said there had been “harrowing scenes” in Kabul in recent days and “the situation at the airport is not getting any better”.
He said the UK had managed to evacuate 9,000 people so far and “we’re confident we can get thousands more out”.
“We will go on right up until the last moment that we can,” Mr Johnson said.
Withdrawal deadline ‘depends on Taliban cooperation’
“But you have heard what the President of the United States has had to say, you have heard what the Taliban have said.”
However, Sky News understands Britain is actively working to keep an airport open in Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of troops.
The PM also said he was “totally realistic” about the Taliban and acknowledged that the current state of affairs was a “very difficult situation”.
But he insisted the G7 has “huge leverage” when engaging with the militant group.
“We want to help with the humanitarian crisis, the difficulties that people in Afghanistan, people fleeing Afghanistan, are going to experience,” Mr Johnson continued.
Analysis by Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor
In the end the balance of risk around extending a deadline for US-led forces to stay in Afghanistan versus the reward of being able to evacuate more people proved too great.
Britain, France and other G7 powers had to accept the reality that an exit date of next Tuesday – imposed on them by US President Joe Biden without consultation – had to remain despite pushing for a few extra days for the rescue operation out of Kabul airport.
The softener to this blow, it seems, was for the group to make a requirement for Afghanistan’s new Taliban leaders to allow “safe passage” for anyone who wishes to leave after the evacuation flights stop the number one condition for any future engagement.
The fact that the UK and other allies, with the exception of the United States, are being forced to swallow a timeframe for their own retreat rather than exit at a moment of their choosing is simply a reflection of the weak position they are in.
“But when it comes to engaging with the Taliban, and engaging with the government in Afghanistan, whatever its exact composition, the G7 has huge leverage.”
Speaking to Sky News earlier, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace conceded that an extension to the 31 August deadline was “unlikely”.
The Taliban has told Sky News that the end of the month was a “red line” and there would be “consequences” if that was extended.
This was reiterated by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Tuesday, who said the US must complete evacuations by 31 August with “no extensions”.
In a joint statement released by Downing Street, G7 leaders affirmed their commitment to the country, including “through a renewed humanitarian effort by the international community”.
US withdrawal must be completed ‘by 31 Aug’
The statement said they backed the UN in coordinating the immediate international humanitarian response in the region.
The PM said the funds that had been frozen in the wake of the Taliban takeover could be released in the future, but stressed Afghanistan “can’t lurch back into becoming a breeding ground of terror, Afghanistan can’t become a narco state, girls have to be educated up to the age of 18, and so on”.
He added: “Those are important things that we value as G7, those are things that unite us in the West, those are things for which we fought for years in Afghanistan, and for which people in this country gave their lives.
“The point that was made today by G7 leaders is that we remain committed to those values and we remain committed to Afghanistan.”
But opposition politicians said the outcome of the summit was a failure for the PM.
Afghan deadline extension ‘unlikely’
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy told Sky News this was a “really dark moment for Afghans”.
“Even at this 11th hour we’d hoped that the prime minister would make good on that commitment and bring world leaders together to agree a joint approach around an extension,” she said.
“Those efforts have fallen short and the painful reality is that there will be many people – Britons and the Afghans who supported us over two decades – who simply aren’t going to get out.”
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Boris Johnson has come out from this summit with nothing. Britain should stand tall in the world, but this prime minister falls short at every turn.
“He has failed on the global stage once more, and the consequences could not be more devastating.”
UK govt ‘has abandoned me in Afghanistan’
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the lack of an extension to the deadline was “deeply regrettable” and “symptomatic of the damaging chaos that has surrounded one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in modern times”.
He added it was “sadly now inevitable that many vulnerable Afghan people will be left abandoned” and the UK government “shares responsibility for the dire situation”.
And Mr Blackford called for Parliament to be “recalled immediately” so ministers could provide daily updates on the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Taliban swept to power earlier this month as the Afghan government collapsed amid the continuing withdrawal of the remaining Western military forces from the country.
The developments come almost 20 years after the invasion of Afghanistan was launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to oust the Taliban and prevent it from harbouring al Qaeda, the group behind the 2001 terror attack on the US.