UK to push Taliban to extend Kabul exit date for western troops

The UK is preparing to appeal to the Taliban to extend the 31 August deadline for western forces to leave Kabul, while accepting it will not be able to airlift everyone eligible to leave Afghanistan.

The armed forces minister, James Heappey, confirmed the UK would try to persuade the Americans to stay longer in Kabul at a G7 meeting on Tuesday. Speaking to Sky News he also said the UK was prepared to urge the Taliban to agree to extend the deadline, regardless of the US decision.

He said: “Whether or not the US can be persuaded to stay is a matter for the prime minister tomorrow at the G7 meeting, the conversation with the Taliban will then follow.”

He added: “The Taliban will have a choice: they can either seek to engage with the international community … or they can turn around and say: ‘No, there’s no opportunity for an extension.’ This is not just the discussion that happens among G7 leaders tomorrow. It’s a discussion that then happens with the Taliban.”

But the Taliban have made clear the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan must be completed by the end of this month. Speaking to Sky from Doha, its spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said: “If they are intent on continuing the occupation it will provoke a reaction.”

Heappey confirmed the presence of UK armed forces in Kabul was predicated on US involvement. He said: “The mission in Kabul this week is fundamentally underpinned by a US presence … There is a hard reality but there would be no international airlift, without the way the United States are underpinning it.

“If there’s the opportunity to stay we will, but right now, our military planning is focused on leaving on the 31st.”

Heappey revealed 1,821 people were evacuated from Kabul on eight Royal Airforce flights in a recent 24-hour period and 6,631 had been airlifted in the past week.

The Guardian revealed that 300 former G4S employees who guarded the UK embassy and the World Bank in Kabul have been denied a place on the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap).

Heappey did not refer to their plight directly but said: “As the cases have been made for more people from Afghan civil society to be evacuated, those names have been added.”

He said the focus was evacuating about 1,800 UK passport-holders, and 2,275 people already accepted on the Arap scheme. He conceded: “There are thousands more who we would like to get out, if there is time and the capacity.”

He added: “There has been an awful lot of people from civil society, who were not in our plans – there wasn’t an eligibility, they were not part of Arap, but the UK government is trying to do the right thing. We will try to bring out as many as we can but that poses a big military challenge … There is a hard reality that we won’t be able to get out to everybody that we want to.”

Heappey also said those left behind would have to make their way to safety over land and sea: “The airlift is not the only route out of Afghanistan. There is a second phase to this, where people will be able to be resettled in the UK, having been processed, either at a handling centre in a refugee camp or at one of our embassies or high commissions in the region.”

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