US pulls out of Afghanistan but RAF ‘able to operate’ against IS fighters there

·6-min read

British forces are prepared to launch air strikes to target so-called Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan, the head of the RAF indicated as the US-led military presence in the country came to an end.

US forces finally withdrew from Afghanistan on Monday, a day ahead of the deadline set by Joe Biden, bringing to an end a deployment which began in the wake of the September 11 attacks two decades ago.

The end of the Western military presence – the UK had already pulled out its remaining troops – also concluded the airborne evacuation effort from Kabul, leaving Afghans wanting to escape the Taliban facing an uncertain future.

A night vision picture of Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, boards a C-17 cargo plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as the final American service member to depart Afghanistan (US Central Command via AP)
A night vision picture of Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, as he boards a C-17 cargo plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as the final American service member to depart Afghanistan (US Central Command via AP)

But while the international community appears to have accepted the reality of Taliban rule, the UK and US remain willing to take on Islamic State, also known as Daesh.

The group’s Afghan offshoot, Isis-K, carried out the bloody attack on Kabul airport in the final days of the evacuation effort which killed two Britons and the child of a British national, along with 13 US service personnel and scores of Afghans.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the global coalition against the terrorist group was ready “to combat Daesh networks by all means available, wherever they operate”.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston indicated the RAF could strike Isis-K targets in Afghanistan.

“Ultimately what this boils down to is that we’ve got to be able to play a global role in the global coalition to defeat Daesh, whether it’s strike, or whether it’s moving troops or equipment into a particular country, at scale and at speed,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“If there’s an opportunity for us to contribute I am in no doubt that we will be ready to – that will be anywhere where violent extremism raises its head, and is a direct or indirect threat to the UK and our allies.

“Afghanistan is probably one of the most inaccessible parts of the world, and we’re able to operate there.”

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The attack on Kabul airport on Thursday has led to a transatlantic blame game, with US sources indicating the gate that was attacked was kept open to facilitate the British evacuation.

According to leaked Pentagon notes obtained by Politico, Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, had wanted to close Abbey Gate but it was kept open to allow UK evacuees into the airport.

The Ministry of Defence said that throughout the operation at the airport “we have worked closely with the US to ensure the safe evacuation of thousands of people”.

The final US troops left Kabul on a flight shortly before midnight local time on Monday, meeting President Biden’s commitment to withdraw ahead of the deadline.

The Taliban proclaimed “full independence” for Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.

The new regime in Afghanistan faces pressure to respect human rights and provide safe passage for those who wish to escape its rule following the passage of a UN Security Council resolution.

The council adopted a resolution in New York – with Russia and China abstaining rather than wielding their vetoes – in what the UK hopes is a step towards a unified international response.

But the resolution effectively acknowledges that it is now up to the Taliban to decide whether people can leave Afghanistan.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Tonight’s UN Security Council resolution, led by the UK with our allies, makes clear that the international community stands with Afghans.

“There can be no return to repression or terror. We will push as one voice for safe passage, humanitarian access and respect for human rights.”

The UK’s ambassador to the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward, stressed that “a co-ordinated approach will be vital to counter any extremist threat emanating from Afghanistan”.

The humanitarian situation also needs to be urgently addressed – with complete access for UN agencies and aid organisations – and the progress made on human rights in the 20 years since the US-led coalition became involved in Afghanistan must also be protected, she said.

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“Today’s resolution is an important step towards a unified international response to the situation in Afghanistan,” Dame Barbara said.

“We will continue to build on this to ensure the council holds the Taliban accountable on its commitments.

“The Taliban will be judged by the international community on the basis of their actions on the ground, not their words.”

Although Russia and China did not back the resolution, their decisions not to block it will be a relief in the West.

The UK hopes Moscow and Beijing can wield some influence over the new Afghan government on issues including countering terrorism and the trade in narcotics, preventing a refugee crisis and further economic collapse.

Dame Barbara said: “There is a lot of shared ground for us to work from although, in this case, Russia and China abstained rather than voted for the resolution.”

The focus on ensuring safe passage for eligible Afghans comes with uncertainty about how many might seek to reach the UK and how they can hope to make the journey following the end of the airlift.

Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said it was impossible to estimate how many people eligible to come to the UK had been left behind after evacuation flights finished.

About 15,000 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan in a “herculean” effort, Mr Cleverly said, but Labour MPs have claimed to have been contacted by thousands who have been left behind.

Mr Cleverly acknowledged some emails about desperate Afghans seeking to leave may not have been read in the Foreign Office as priority in the evacuation effort was given to people who could be processed and reach Kabul airport before the airlift ended.

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