Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK would have to be “pragmatic” with the Taliban, admitting that it was “now in power” in Afghanistan. He said it was important to engage through “direct or indirect” means and suggested Britain would work with countries including China on the future of Afghanistan as they shared a “common interest”. It was the clearest indication yet from a government minister on what the future relationship with Afghanistan will look like.
Asked on Sky News if the Taliban was an organisation the UK could do business with, Mr Raab said: “I think we’re going to have to be pragmatic as the UK policy has always been. We’ve engaged through the political commission of the Taliban, in Doha, it’s important we engage through third parties… we’re going to need to be able to send clear messages and our message is going to be this: Afghanistan must never be used to launch terrorist attacks against the West.”
He said they wanted to do everything they could through diplomatic and economic sanctions to “moderate and exercise some form of positive influence” on the regime.
However, the Cabinet minister admitted that the Taliban could not be trusted and when it was put to him it was a “ragtag bunch of thugs”, he replied: “I’m not going to dissent from that view but they are now in power and we now need to deal with that reality.”
In another interview with BBC Breakfast, Mr Raab was asked if he would sit down with his counterpart in a Taliban government. He replied that it would not happen “for the foreseeable future”.
He also said he planned to increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by 10 per cent but would “make sure” it did not go through the Taliban.
Asked about concerns the situation in Afghanistan could cause problems in the UK with radicalised groups, he replied: “Of course what happens in the Middle East we know can have a ricochet effect back in the UK.” However he stressed that MI5 and law enforcement agencies were “absolutely red hot” on protecting British nationals and the UK.
The Foreign Secretary was also forced to defend taking a holiday on a Mediterranean island as the crisis bubbled over, forcing him to return early.
Mr Raab insisted that he was able to respond to events while he was away and that he returned to the UK “as soon as the situation deteriorated and demanded it”. He added: “We didn’t predict that we would be doing this on this scale because of the Taliban take-over. But look, in retrospect of course I wouldn’t have gone on holiday if I had known that would be the case.”
It comes as Western states continued to scramble to get their nationals and Afghan allies out of the country amid chaotic scenes at Kabul airport. It was announced last night that an extra 200 members of the British armed forces were being sent to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation efforts — bolstering the number to 900.
Mr Raab defended the UK’s actions, claiming that “no one” saw the situation coming and the UK “would have taken action if we had”. There has been growing criticism of both the UK Government and US President Joe Biden’s actions over the crisis.
Labour shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Kinnock said: “Any talk of diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government is completely premature and shouldn’t be considered. But we do also have to face facts they are now going to be in control of the country for the foreseeable future.” Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, a former Army captain and chairman of the defence select committee, tweeted a clip of a statement by the Foreign Secretary last night.
He wrote: “I cannot believe this is now the sum of our new foreign policy to hold the Taliban to account ‘Applying sanctions and holding back ODA [aid]’. This will not prevent a civil war — nor deter the Taliban from imposing a ruthless interpretation of Sharia law.” He also said Boris Johnson should address the nation: “Given the dire consequences of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the escalating chaos and now with more troops to be deployed.”
Veteran Tory MP Sir John Redwood said: “The UK Government needs a security plan to deal with a Taliban Afghan government. We need to secure our borders against any terrorists and illegal trade the new Afghanistan might shelter or assist.”
Meanwhile, a speech by President Biden last night sparked a fierce reaction from Conservative MPs who described it as “very protectionist”. Mr Biden said he stood “squarely” behind the US exit, asking: “How many more American lives is it worth?” He said that despite the “messy” pullout, “there was never a good time to withdraw US forces”. But Angela Richardson, MP for Guildford, said: “The world just got a little bit smaller after that statement. Very protectionist. Only concerned about terrorist threats on US soil and no real acknowledgement of the devastation left behind in Afghanistan.” Mark Jenkinson, MP for Workington, added: “Supporting Joe Biden’s failure of statecraft will be to the detriment of all of us. To some, it’s quite literally a death sentence.”
A total of 150 British nationals were flown out of Afghanistan on Sunday while 289 Afghan nationals were taken out last week, according to Mr Raab. A further 350 British and Afghans are due leave the country in the next 24 hours.