Britain fears US forces may pull out of Kabul airport within days

Exclusive: Whitehall and security sources worry they will not be able to continue emergency evacuations

Britain fears US forces may pull out of Kabul international airport within days, putting it at risk of closure and raising concerns over the emergency airlift of thousands of people from Afghanistan.

Whitehall and security sources said they could not guarantee how long the US would keep its contingent of 6,000 troops on the ground and cautioned that the UK could not continue the rescue without their presence. They also indicated Britain was not engaging with the Taliban directly over security or other issues after the militant group seized the Afghan capital.

The Guardian has learned that some in government, however, believe there is a shift by UK ministers and the military towards dealing directly with the Taliban and legitimising their role – a position that would anger those who believe they have not changed.

Gen Sir Nick Carter, the head of the British armed forces, said on Wednesday he thought the Taliban wanted an “inclusive Afghanistan” and described them as “country boys” who had “honour at the heart of what they do”. Asked on Sky News about the Taliban’s repression of women, Carter said: “I do think they have changed and recognise Afghanistan has evolved and the fundamental role women have played in that evolution.”

Boris Johnson also hinted at the possibility of recognising the Taliban, potentially in conjunction with other countries, telling MPs: “We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes and by its actions rather than by its words.”

A Whitehall source said uncertainty over the Taliban’s actions, however, and the US position, meant the UK wanted to complete its evacuation as rapidly as it could, saying: “There’s a realistic view that we want to just go as quickly as possible.”

The airport in Kabul was the scene of chaos this week but has since been secured by the US ahead of a planned evacuation deadline of 31 August. British attempts to seek reassurances from the US over that timeline had not proved successful, a source said, although on Tuesday the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, tweeted that the country would hold the airport “to get all Americans out of Afghanistan”.

A total of 700 Britons, Afghans and others were airlifted out of Kabul on Tuesday, according to official figures, taking the total to more than 1,150 out of as many as 6,000, half of which are Britons and dual nationals and the remainder Afghans eligible to settle in the UK because they previously helped the British. Of the 1,150, 300 are Britons.

Carter said he expected seven aircraft to head to Kabul, enabling up to a further 1,000 people to leave on Wednesday. “The situation has stabilised since the weekend but it remains precarious,” he said.

The operation of the airport is also dependent on the Taliban, who now control its surroundings. Military experts say it is easy to close an airport by firing mortars or shells on to the runway.

A particular problem is the difficulty of eligible people getting to the airport. Some Britons have been advised to say, at Taliban checkpoints, that they want to “go to the airport and leave the country”, but it is feared this could put them at risk of reprisals.

A security source said the UK was having to rely on “uncomfortable intermediaries” in its dealings with the Taliban, who have a separate agreement with the US to allow it to conduct its retreat. Insiders also acknowledge the UK has limited intelligence on what is happening outside Kabul.

Carter’s interview with Sky News, which followed a Taliban press conference on Tuesday, prompted a furious reaction among MPs. The Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani told the Guardian: “Not a single Afghan woman has stated this naive optimism about the Taliban. They have not changed, women are hiding at home in fear of having been teachers and lawyers and just yesterday a women was killed in Afghanistan for not covering her hair.”

Caroline Nokes, the Tory chair of the equalities committee, said: “I would rather judge them by their actions than their words. Look at the pictures of the streets of Kabul, the women have disappeared, gone into hiding, especially those who have any sort of leadership role. The civic mayors, the activists, the journalists, the judges. The women we have encouraged to step up, to build civic society in Afghanistan, they are the ones most likely to suffer reprisals.”

The Labour MP Stella Creasy said: “Anyone thinking that Taliban pledges on women’s rights are enough – as if it’s equality being able to leave the house alone – needs to ask if they would be happy to live under such restrictions and feel an equal citizen.”

Asked about Carter’s position, Johnson’s spokesperson said: “He was reflecting what was claimed by the Taliban.”


Dan Sabbagh, Rowena Mason and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
British troops could help police Kabul airport safe zone
UN security council discussing proposal to allow safe passage for people leaving Afghanistan

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

30, Aug, 2021 @6:19 PM

Article image
UK evacuation from Afghanistan ‘down to hours not weeks’
Defence secretary says British evacuation effort cannot continue once US troops leave Kabul

Matthew Weaver Andrew Sparrow and Aubrey Allegretti

23, Aug, 2021 @10:56 AM

Article image
UK and US took ‘joint decision’ to keep Kabul airport gate open
British sources dispute claim US forces kept gate ‘open longer than they wanted to’ before deadly attack last week

Dan Sabbagh, Heather Stewart and Patrick Wintour

31, Aug, 2021 @6:33 PM

US soldier's killing spree puts Afghanistan on a knife-edge

Tensions increase as nine children among 16 shot dead by lone gunman in Zangabad village in Kandahar

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul

12, Mar, 2012 @12:56 AM

Article image
Don't abandon Afghanistan after 2014 handover, plead generals
Exclusive: British commander voices fears that Taliban will exploit power vacuum in Afghanistan after west quits

Nick Hopkins in Kabul

10, May, 2011 @5:41 PM

Article image
Too little, too late: why it was panic stations in Whitehall as Kabul fell
How the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan precipitated a political one at the heart of UK government

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

20, Aug, 2021 @3:14 PM

Article image
Sherard Cowper-Coles: 'The nightly slaughter of the Taliban is profoundly wrong'
When he was British ambassador in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles was a lone voice as an outspoken critic of western policy. Now he's back and he's sticking to his guns

Julian Borger

25, May, 2011 @8:00 PM

Article image
UK scrambles to complete Kabul airlift as envoy flags risk of provoking Taliban
Warnings from senior diplomat that staying past deadline next week would cross ‘red line’

Dan Sabbagh and Julian Borger

23, Aug, 2021 @9:32 PM

Article image
Johnson to urge Biden to keep US troops at Kabul airport after 31 August
PM’s request to be made at G7 summit as Taliban increases grip on access to flights

Dan Sabbagh, Peter Beaumont and Peter Walker

23, Aug, 2021 @3:58 AM

Article image
Boris Johnson: UK will continue with final stages of Kabul airlift
Prime minister says ‘we’re going to keep going until the last moment’, despite deadly attack on airport

Peter Walker and Andrew Sparrow

26, Aug, 2021 @6:11 PM