Hundreds more British troops are being sent to Kabul to help with the evacuation effort in Afghanistan’s capital – as the foreign secretary admitted the UK was left “surprised” by the speed with which the Taliban took control of the country.
An extra 200 British troops will be sent to Kabul, bringing the number of UK armed forces personnel in the city to around 900 – the majority of which have been deployed in the past week.
It is understood several hundred further troops are also set to be deployed in the region in order to be able to move into Afghanistan quickly, if needed.
And more personnel are being held at readiness in the UK in order to be able to deploy at short notice, if further troops are needed for defensive duties, according to the Ministry of Defence.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson intends to host a virtual meeting of G7 leaders on Afghanistan in the “coming days”, Downing Street said.
The UK currently holds the presidency of the group of the world’s leading democracies.
An immediate focus of British troops in Kabul will be the evacuation effort from the city’s airport, with UK armed forces working with partners to secure the Hamed Karzai International Airport to ensure RAF and civilian chartered flights can operate.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab revealed this was the focus of an emergency COBRA meeting of top ministers and officials on Monday.
Mr Raab revealed that 150 British nationals would be arriving back in the UK in the early hours of Tuesday morning, with a further 350 Britons and Afghan nationals arriving in the coming days.
But the foreign secretary refused to state how many refugees the UK might accept from Afghanistan, which has fallen back into Taliban control after 20 years, although he stressed Britain was “obviously a big-hearted nation”.
“Everyone, I think, has been surprised by the scale and the pace at which the Taliban have taken over in Afghanistan,” said Mr Raab, who flew back to the UK last night from a summer holiday abroad amid criticism he had been absent during an unfolding international crisis.
“And that’s a lesson that we’ve all got to learn from. But the truth is what matters right now is focusing on getting British nationals out, getting out those who have so loyally served the UK.
“And making sure that the gains that we’ve made over 20 years are not lost.
“Let’s remember we haven’t had a terrorist attack on the UK from Afghanistan in 20 years.
“Because of UK aid, ten million more children have been in education. Because of UK efforts with others, eight million more landmines have been cleared.
“So we have a record that we should not overlook. Of course, the priority now is to make sure that the gains aren’t lost because of the Taliban taking control.”
The government is under pressure from its own Conservative MPs over its handling of the crisis in Afghanistan.
And the families of those who died fighting during the two decades of Western military intervention in the country have criticised the UK and US over the withdrawal of troops.
Mr Raab vowed the UK would hold the Taliban “to account” if they did not uphold commitments on human rights and preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorism.
He suggested that economic sanctions, the withholding of UK foreign aid, and work with international partners could be used as “levers” put pressure on the Taliban to make sure “they are held to the undertakings that they’ve made”.
The foreign secretary described the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as a “new reality” although “not what we wanted”.
“We’re making it clear with our partners with all the means at our disposal, that we will hold the Taliban to account, to its commitments, to have a new start in Afghanistan,” he added.
“It’s clearly not going to be to the values that the UK, the west, the European Union, the Americans believe in, but we can have a moderating influence.
“I think it’s important we use all of the policy tools at our disposal – working with our partners – to try and achieve that.”
And Mr Raab defended his taking of a summer holiday, when asked if he should have returned to the UK sooner.
“I think the important thing to understand is right the way through last week – and I arrived, was on a flight last night to get back – I’ve been directly in touch with my team, directing them, which has paid the dividends, you can see what we’ve delivered with 150 British nationals who are going to be arriving back in the UK tomorrow morning.”
The foreign secretary said he had been “engaged” in all three of the COBRA meetings held in the past four days, while he revealed he spoke to his Pakistani counterpart on Sunday and was due to speak with US secretary of state Antony Blinken later on Monday.
Earlier, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there was an “obligation” to those in Afghanistan who had helped the UK effort.
“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,” he said.
“If those in Afghan have helped us, the UK, in our work in Afghanistan, we have got an obligation to them.”