Official begins discussions over safe passage for Brits and Afghans
1st September 2021

Britain talks to the Taliban: Spy chiefs begin discussions over safe passage for Brits and Afghans left behind after troops withdrew – amid claims 9,000 UK allies may be stranded

  • Britain has entered talks with the Taliban about the safe passage of citizens
  • Dominic Raab said number of British nationals in Afghanistan in ‘low hundreds’
  • He said the UK had brought home 5,000 British nationals since April this year
  • However, it remains unclear how many UK allies have been left behind in Kabul 

British officials have opened talks with the Taliban about getting UK citizens and allies out of Afghanistan, it emerged last night.

Special envoy Sir Simon Gass, the chair or the Joint Intelligence Committee, met senior representatives of the group in Qatar to try to secure safe passage for those left behind following the chaotic military withdrawal. 

Officers from MI6 also met the militia group, while the head of MI6 Richard Moore flew to Islamabad for talks with the head of the Pakistani army.  

Downing Street confirmed ‘broad discussions’ with the Taliban had got under way.

A government source said: ‘The Prime Minister’s special representative for Afghan transition, Simon Gass, has travelled to Doha and is meeting with senior Taliban representatives to underline the importance of safe passage out of Afghanistan for British nationals, and those Afghans who have worked with us over the past 20 years.’

Sources declined to comment further on the talks. But ministers have made clear that future aid payments and the unfreezing of assets will depend on the Taliban’s willingness to facilitate safe passage and respect human rights.

Talks with the group are likely to be controversial however, given the radical group’s record and the threats to many Afghan translators who worked with British forces. 

It comes as the Home Office said around 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan who risked their lives to help British forces would be allowed to live and work indefinitely in the UK. 

Boris Johnson’s special representative for Afghan transition, Simon Gass (pictured), entered talks with senior Taliban leaders 

Dominic Raab said the number of Brits still in Afghanistan is ‘now down at a very low level’ after 5,000 were brought home since April this year

The chief of MI6, Richard Moore, also flew to Islamabad for talks with the leader of Pakistan’s army

The talks, which marks a significant moment for the UK, come after Dominic Raab said the number of British nationals left behind in Afghanistan is in the ‘low hundreds’. 

The dramatic developments came as:

  • Taliban militants celebrated ‘independence day’ following the final withdrawal of US forces on Sunday night; 
  • Astonishing pictures showed their fighters holding American-made weapons and posing for jubilant selfies in abandoned military aircraft;
  • Defence Secretary Ben Wallace pledged that all those left behind would be offered individual help to escape;
  • Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tried to spread the blame for the Afghan crisis to other departments as he prepared for a grilling by MPs today;
  • The Foreign Office risked further criticism after announcing that just 15 extra staff would be deployed to neighbouring countries to help refugees;
  • Ministers suggested Britain could lead bombing raids in Afghanistan against Isis-K terrorists under plans being drawn up by the RAF;
  • The US-UK ‘special relationship’ came under renewed strain as recriminations flew between Washington and London over the Kabul airport terror attack.

Last night it emerged discussions had also taken place between senior British intelligence officers and Taliban leaders in both Kabul and Doha amid increasing fears that Afghanistan could become a base for terrorists plotting attacks against the West.

The talks saw officers from the British embassy in Kabul speak with members of the militia group before the embassy was evacuated.

It is understood the discussions, which have taken place in the past two weeks, saw Britain stress how future foreign aid would be reliant upon the new rulers of Kabul ending any connections with terrorist groups.          

A source told The Telegraph: ‘It’s what we’ve always been most worried about. That’s a red line for dealing with them: any sign of attack planning.’ 

The chief of MI6, Richard Moore, also flew to Islamabad for talks with the leader of Pakistan’s army General Qamar Javed Bajwa regarding the collaboration between both nations. 

With talks under way, Sir William Patey, former British ambassador to Afghanistan, told the BBC: ‘[The Taliban] know they can’t run this country without help.

‘If the Taliban are going to run a government and hold onto power as they want to do, they’re going to have to engage as well. So we have some cards.’

The talks come as Mr Raab said the number of Brits still in the country is ‘now down at a very low level’ after 5,000 were brought home since April this year. 

However, it remains unclear how many Afghan citizens who worked for the British Government are stranded after the withdrawal of Western forces was completed. 

Ministers had suggested last week that approximately 1,000 Afghans who were eligible to come to the UK may not make it out. 

But Whitehall sources told The Guardian that the figure could actually be about 9,000. 

The Government has not given a concrete figure, with Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly saying yesterday that it was ‘impossible’ to put a number on how many people have been left behind. 

The Foreign Office said it hopes to find ‘practical solutions’ to help those in in Afghanistan attempting to enter neighbouring countries.   

Asked how many eligible people had been left in the country by the UK, Mr Raab told Sky News: ‘Look, of course, we lament the fact that anyone will be left behind.

‘I would just say that since April when we have been planning and instituting this, over 17,000 British nationals, Afghan workers, vulnerable special cases are out.

‘I know that the number of UK nationals, the particular responsibility of the Foreign Office, is now down at a very low level.’

Asked if he could be more specific on how many British nationals were still in the country, he said: ‘Well, low hundreds given that we have taken in total 5,000 out, and most of those are difficult cases where it is not clear around eligibility because they are undocumented.

‘We have now put in place the arrangements with third countries, or we are putting them in place.

‘I have spoken to some of the key third countries, so have other ministers, to make sure that we can make sure that we can have a workable route through for those outstanding cases.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘It’s very difficult to give you a firm figure. I can tell you that for UK nationals we’ve secured since April over 5,000, and we’re in the low hundreds (remaining).’ 

It is unclear how many of those British nationals who are still in the country have decided to stay of their own volition.  

Former Afghan government official, Ahmad, said he sent emails to British officials asking for help after he was left behind. 

It remains unclear how many Afghan citizens who worked for the British Government are stranded after the withdrawal of Western forces was completed

Thousands of Afghans have been evacuated to the US from Kabul airport after the Taliban took over the country 

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, wait to board a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly

Members of the British armed forces 16 Air Assault Brigade walk to the air terminal after departing a flight from Afghanistan at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire

Ex-MI6 boss: Taliban victory in Afghanistan will ‘inspire’ terrorists to attack the West 

A former head of MI6 today warned the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan could ‘inspire’ terrorists to launch attacks on the West amid a growing backlash at Joe Biden’s handling of the US withdrawal from the country.

Sir John Sawers said there is ‘no doubt’ the Taliban’s success is being ‘celebrated’ by extreme Islamist groups and ‘that raises the risk of them being inspired to more violence in Western countries’.

Sir John said the chaos in Afghanistan means terror groups are likely to move there because they will have ‘some operating space’, with the US and UK now in a ‘much weaker position’ to combat the threat they pose.

His comments came as the former professional head of Britain’s armed forces launched a direct attack on Mr Biden over the West’s Afghanistan ‘defeat’, as the transatlantic alliance was placed under further strain.

Lord David Richards, an ex-chief of the defence staff, accused the US President and other politicians of letting down Britain and their Afghan allies in their rush to escape Kabul.

The peer, who served in Afghanistan, said ‘we’ve been defeated by the Taliban’ as he attacked America and the UK Government over their handling of the pull out.

 

He told The Times: ‘When I tried to pass through the Taliban checkpoints to get inside the airport the Taliban guards said they had instructions from the US not to allow anyone through who did not have a visa stamp in their passport or a foreign passport. I didn’t have those things.’

He added: ‘I want the UK government to clearly state it will honour its promise to those with evacuation notices — that those people who get to an embassy will be offered safe passage to the UK. 

‘Getting there will be incredibly dangerous.’      

The Government has suggested that eligible people could cross into a third country next to Afghanistan in order to get to Britain now the airlift operation out of Kabul has ended.    

But Mr Raab conceded that such journeys could be a ‘challenge’, telling Sky News: ‘Well, that is a challenge which is why we are holding very squarely the Taliban to their explicit assurances, they have made them bilaterally to us, they have made them to other countries… that they must allow safe passage, not just for our nationals but other Afghans, particularly vulnerable ones, who wish to leave.’

Joe Biden meanwhile delivered a defiant defence of the US pullout, claiming the evacuation had been ‘an extraordinary success’. 

In an address to the nation last night, the US President denied the withdrawal could have been achieved in a more orderly fashion and insisted he could not have extended ‘the forever war’. 

It also emerged yesterday that Britain will send just 15 extra staff to help process the claims of Afghans fleeing the clutches of the Taliban.

Downing Street yesterday said an unspecified number of ‘surge staff’ would be sent to neighbouring countries to process the claims of those Afghans who manage to make it to the border.

But the Foreign Office last night said this would amount to just 15 extra officials who will be sent to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Mr Raab said the further staff would ‘reinforce our embassy teams on the ground to help those in need’.

Sources said the officials had all been highly trained in ‘crisis response’.

However, the modest scale of the deployment is likely to raise eyebrows among those critical of the Government’s actions so far.

Mr Raab has faced questions about why he has failed to follow the lead of German counterpart Heiko Maas who has visited five of Afghanistan’s neighbours in recent days.

The EU is drawing up a £500million aid package for Afghan’s neighbours to help them deal with refugees arriving from the war-torn country, in the hope of preventing a new wave of asylum seekers heading to Europe. 

A welcome to make us proud: Relief as 10,000 Afghan heroes who risked their lives helping UK troops are given permission to live here indefinitely 

Thousands of Afghans who risked their lives to help British forces will be allowed to live and work indefinitely in the UK.

The Home Office last night said the coveted status would be granted immediately – and automatically – to around 10,000 refugees.

It will allow them to work and enrol their children in school as they try to build a new life here.

The decision fast-tracks a process that can take years and with only a limited right to remain.

Boris Johnson said the policy reflected the ‘immense debt’ owed to translators and others who had helped the UK military during the 20-year engagement.

Thousands of Afghans who risked their lives to help British forces will be allowed to live and work indefinitely in the UK. Pictured: Afghan refugees arrive at Heathrow Airport, London

The Home Office said the coveted status would be granted immediately – and automatically – to around 10,000 refugees. Pictured: Afghan refugees arriving into Heathrow last week

A Whitehall source said that the package, codenamed Operation Warm Welcome, was ‘the least we could do’ following the chaotic and bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Ministers are still however under pressure to do more to help hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Afghans now in hiding from Taliban reprisals for helping British troops. 

Its leaders have claimed they will not seek revenge but militants yesterday raided the homes of former translators in Kabul.

Former interpreters told the Mail they were living in fear for their lives after failing to secure a place among the 10,000 flown to Britain.

A 35-year-old who has qualified for relocation to the UK said: ‘No one believes the Taliban’s words of forgiveness. We helped the British kill and capture their men.

‘We provided the intelligence to fight against them. We questioned their captured and injured – so it is simple that they will want revenge.’


Refugees from Afghanistan arrive on a evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport on August 26

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab yesterday denied reports that more than 7,000 Afghans with links to UK forces had been left behind, but was unable to provide another figure.

He said the number of British citizens left in Afghanistan was in ‘the low hundreds’, following the evacuation of more than 15,000 people in the second half of August.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said around 300 Afghans granted refuge in the UK had been left behind, along with 700 relatives.

Normally, asylum seekers are banned from working while their claims are assessed. They are entitled to minimal financial support if they would ‘otherwise be destitute’.

Permission to work may be granted only if their claim has not been processed within a year through no fault of their own.

If they are eventually granted leave to remain it is typically capped at five years.

By contrast, those who have served British forces will immediately be granted indefinite leave to remain, which brings with it the right to work and the option to apply for British citizenship.

Those eligible under the Afghanistan Relocations and Assistance Policy will also be eligible for immediate access to NHS services.

Councils have been offered a modest £5million to help with housing. Officials said they were working with more than 100 town halls and had so far found accommodation for more than 2,000 people.

Councils will be given an extra £12million to provide additional school places for Afghan children and further funding will be provided to create 300 university places.

Arrivals from Afghanistan will also be offered the Covid vaccine and given access to a portal where members of the public will be able to share offers of work and housing and make donations.

A Whitehall source last night told the Mail the package was ‘likely’ to be extended to 20,000 Afghans expected to come under a wider resettlement scheme – but this has not been decided.

Taliban promises the UK that Afghans will be allowed ‘safe passage’ to leave after August 31

The UK Government has received assurances from the Taliban that anybody wishing to leave Afghanistan after August 31 will be allowed to do so.

British troops have already left Kabul and US military personnel will be out of Afghanistan before the August 31 deadline set by US President Joe Biden.

But there have been fears over the potentially thousands of Afghans who may have been eligible for resettlement schemes, who could not make it to Kabul airport for evacuation or were not processed in time.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday that if the Taliban regime wanted diplomatic recognition and aid funding, they would have to ensure ‘safe passage’ for those who want to leave.

And in a joint statement with the US and more than 90 other countries, it was confirmed that the Taliban had said anyone who wished to leave the country could do so.

The joint statement said: ‘We have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorisation from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country.’

It comes after 15,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan by UK troops over the course of nearly two weeks in Operation Pitting, which is believed to be the largest evacuation mission since the Second World War.

British ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Laurie Bristow, who had remained in the country and relocated the embassy to Kabul airport to process as many evacuees as possible, arrived back in the UK on Sunday.

He vowed to continue to help British nationals and Afghans who remain in the country and still need help.

Speaking on the runway at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, he said: ‘We’ve had to leave Afghanistan for now and the embassy will operate from Qatar for the time being.

‘We will continue to stand by the people of Afghanistan, working on humanitarian, diplomatic and security work, and above all bringing to the UK Afghans and British nationals who still need our support, and we will be putting pressure on the Taliban to allow safe passage for those people.

‘We will reopen the embassy as soon as we can. We will do everything we can to protect the gains of the last 20 years and above all to help the Afghan people achieve the security and the peace that they deserve.’

 

 

 

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