Dominic Raab has said there was widespread surprise including among the Taliban at the speed with which the group swept to military victory in Afghanistan, but the UK now wanted direct communication with the militants.
Raab was speaking after holding talks with officials in Pakistan, the country with the greatest sway over the Taliban. It was his first visit to Islamabad as foreign secretary, and follows criticism that he had not engaged with the Pakistan foreign policy elite in the six months prior to the crisis erupting.
He told reporters: “The takeover, I think it’s fair to say, was faster than anyone anticipated, not just the United Kingdom or Nato allies, but I was talking with our friends here. And I suspect the Taliban and ordinary Afghans were taken by surprise. I think there was a common widespread surprise at the speed with which the consolidation of power happened.”
His remarks seemingly contradicted those of the prime minister, Boris Johnson, who said on Thursday it had been “clear for many months” that the situation in Afghanistan could change very fast. Johnson has also said the loss of air cover was critical to the collapse, remarks that may not be well received in Washington.
A focus of Raab’s visit is on easing a safe passage for those still trying to leave Afghanistan, and to impress on the Taliban not to revert to the repressive and divisive polices that marked their rule in the 1990s.
After Raab set out a conditions-based approach to dealing with the Taliban, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said: “Some have the choice of getting up and leaving but we do not. We are neighbours [and] we have to coexist. Geography ties us together so our approach [to the Taliban] has to be somewhat different [and] realistic.” Pakistan’s stance was that it “had no favourites” in Afghanistan, he said.
Qureshi praised the positive signals coming from the Taliban leadership about a general amnesty to all Afghans, protection of women’s rights and freedom of speech. He has stressed that Pakistan cannot take responsibility for the Taliban’s actions stressing its role is as a facilitator of talks not a guarantor.
Raab was also expected to meet Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, and the army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. Raab may also visit the border with other British officials to examine the refugee crisis. The head of MI6, Richard Moore, also flew to Islamabad to meet Bajwa last week.
Pakistan says its border with Afghanistan is secure and denies allegations it has played a double game by giving succour to the Taliban. The former US national security adviser HR McMaster told the Policy Exchange thinktank this week: “We should stop pretending Pakistan is a partner. Pakistan has been acting as an enemy nation against us by continuing to use terrorist jihadist organisations as part of its foreign policy.” He said the country should be on a path to becoming a pariah state with a single state sponsor, China.
Pakistan’s key ask in the talks with Raab was to be removed from a sanctions list imposed by the Financial Action Task Force for failing to combat money laundering and terror financing, which has wrecked the economy. It also wants to be taken off the red list of countries that requires anyone travelling from Pakistan to Britain to quarantine in a hotel on arrival. Raab said no one wanted to see Pakistan removed from the red list more than him.
The Foreign Office also confirmed details of how a £30m UK aid package for Afghanistan would be used. It is expected that £10m will be made available immediately to humanitarian organisations, such as the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), to dispatch supplies to the Afghan borders.
Countries predicted to experience a significant increase in refugees will also receive £20m to help with processing new arrivals and to provide essential services and supplies.