Number 10 denies pressuring US military to keep Kabul airport gate open before terror attack
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted it was “just not true”
Downing Street has flatly denied pressuring the US to keep open the Kabul airport gate near where a deadly terror attack was launched, following a leak from the Pentagon that threatened to strain relations.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted it was “just not true” to suggest the UK called for the gate to be held open in order to continue British evacuations at the site where a suicide bombing killed more than 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops.
The Cabinet minister also said the number of UK nationals left behind in Afghanistan was in the “low hundreds” on Tuesday following the end of two decades of western military presence in the country.
But he was unable to give a “definitive” figure on how many Afghans the UK had failed to airlift to safety after the Taliban seized power as the US withdrew its final troops.
A strain in relations between London and Washington was threatened when the Politico website reported leaked notes from the Pentagon suggesting US commanders planned to close Abbey Gate by Thursday afternoon, Kabul time, amid intelligence of an imminent terror attack.
But it was alleged that the Americans decided to keep the gate open for longer to allow Britain to continue its own evacuation effort.
Scores of Afghans, 13 US service personnel, two Britons and the child of a British national died in a bombing carried out by Isis-K, an Afghan offshoot of the so-called Islamic State group.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s simply not true to suggest that we pushed to keep the gate open.
“In response to the change in travel advice ahead of the attack last week, the UK moved operations out of the Baron Hotel.”
Asked about the state of transatlantic relations, he said: “The US continues to be our strongest ally.”
Mr Raab was also moved to reject the allegations surfacing in the US as “just not true”.
“We co-ordinated very closely with the US, in particular around the Isis-K threat which we anticipated, although tragically were not able to prevent, but it is certainly right to say we got our civilians out of the processing centre by Abbey Gate,” Mr Raab told Sky News.
“But it is just not true to suggest that other than securing our civilians inside the airport that we were pushing to leave the gate open.”
No 10 also insisted Boris Johnson has “full confidence” in Mr Raab after reports suggesting he will be “toast” at the next Cabinet reshuffle, and would be moved away from his role as Foreign Secretary amid mounting criticism.
Some of the ire was for remaining in holiday in Crete as the Taliban was seizing back control of Afghanistan.
Downing Street said on Tuesday that the Prime Minister had left on Sunday for a four-day trip to the West Country with his family and would not return to No 10 until Thursday.
His official spokesman insisted that Mr Johnson was “continuing to work”, with Britons and Afghans remaining stranded after the withdrawal of forces from Kabul.
The US ended a deployment that began in the wake of the September 11 attacks two decades ago when it withdrew its remaining forces from Afghanistan on Monday.
Mr Raab did not dismiss the possibility that thousands of Afghans and UK nationals could have been left behind.
Instead, he told BBC Radio 4’s 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).”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had previously estimated that up to 1,100 eligible Afghans who had aided the British mission would not be evacuated in time.
No 10 said the UK would be “beefing up” the number of staff in neighbouring nations to support the remaining people wanting to flee Afghanistan.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman described them as “surge staff” but could not say how many there would be or when they will be deployed.
With the threat of the terror cell remaining, 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.”
Both Mr Raab and No 10 declined to rule out such strikes.
“In extremis, we always reserve the right to exercise lawful self-defence and we would, of course, never rule that out in particular in relation to dealing with terrorist groups,” he told Today.
The final US troops left Kabul on a flight shortly before midnight local time on Monday, ahead of US president Joe Biden’s deadline to withdraw before the end of August.
The Taliban proclaimed “full independence” for Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.
One Kabul resident told the PA news agency he and his family were unable to sleep due to the noise of gunfire as the Taliban celebrated the departure of US troops.
The Afghan, who is not being named to protect his security, said the Taliban were shooting into the sky until 3.30am.
“Firing began when US last aeroplane took off from airport… we didn’t (sleep) because of gunshots,” he said.
He added that many people in the capital are already suffering from money, food and medicine shortages amid shop closures and border restrictions.
“Some of them are selling their house items to get some food or medicines for his or her family,” he added.