Afghan rescue ‘down to hours, not weeks’, Defence Secretary says

Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace.
Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace.

Ben Wallace acknowledged that America’s exit will mean 'we will have to go as well', ahead of Tuesday talks

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Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said the Kabul evacuation effort is “down to hours now, not weeks” as he conceded Britain’s involvement will end when the US leaves Afghanistan.

The Taliban also said any attempt to continue the operation past August 31 would “provoke a reaction” as Boris Johnson prepared to press Joe Biden for an extension to the deadline.

A member of the UK Armed Forces bumps fists with a child as he continues to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport.
A member of the UK Armed Forces bumps fists with a child as he continues to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport.

With the UK still hoping to evacuate thousands more people, the Prime Minister will urge the US president to delay the withdrawal of forces from Kabul airport during a summit of G7 leaders.

Mr Wallace acknowledged that America’s exit will mean “we will have to go as well” ahead of the talks on Tuesday.

The Defence Secretary said: “The Prime Minister is, obviously at the G7, going to try and raise the prospect of seeing if the United States will extend.

“It’s really important for people to understand the United States have over 6,000 people in Kabul airport and when they withdraw that will take away the framework… and we will have to go as well.

“I don’t think there is any likelihood of staying on after the United States. If their timetable extends even by a day or two that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people.

“Because we are really down to hours now, not weeks, and we have to make sure we exploit every minute to get people out.”

Lt Cdr Alex Pelham Burns a member of the UK Armed Forces speaks to children as he continues to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport.
Lt Cdr Alex Pelham Burns a member of the UK Armed Forces speaks to children as he continues to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport.

Mr Wallace said “real problems” were being created by “crowds of many people, who don’t meet any criteria but who are trying to get out of the country”.

And he added: “If we get more days, we get more people out, if the flow improves at the gates.”

He said: “The hardest thing is, to be honest, about the reality, which is we won’t get them all out, but we are doing it every hour of every day to get them through.”

Earlier, armed forces minister James Heappey conceded that the Taliban “gets a vote” on the evacuation deadline, ahead of the group seemingly ruling out a continued presence of British or American troops.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace held talks with their Washington counterparts over the weekend to call for an extension.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has written to the Prime Minister calling for more information on how the UK is planning for the next stages of the rescue mission.

Sir Keir asked whether Mr Johnson had “spoken personally” to Mr Biden to “ask him to extend the evacuation period beyond the end of August”, and whether the UK was working on a contingency plan with Nato allies to “hold Kabul airport without US troops”.

Government officials said there is “no fixed date” on when the UK will withdraw, but it is feared that without US boots on the ground, the remaining allied forces would be unable to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport from the crowds looking to flee the Taliban takeover, or other potential security threats.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that 5,725 people have been repatriated since rescue efforts began on August 13, with 3,100 of them Afghan individuals and their families.

On Sunday, 1,721 people were airlifted from Kabul by the Royal Air Force across eight flights.