It was impossible to predict the Taliban would retake Afghanistan so swiftly after the withdrawal of international troops, Dominic Raab has said, arguing “no one saw this coming”.
Speaking to the media following his return from holiday, after chaotic and deadly scenes at Kabul airport on Sunday, the UK foreign secretary said US and British troops had stabilised the airport, allowing evacuations to resume.
In the last 24 hours, 350 more people – British nationals as well as Afghans who worked for UK forces and their families – had been removed, Raab said, adding that up to 2,000 UK nationals or dual nationals were believed to be in the country.
Challenged on whether he and others should have foreseen the effect of international forces being pulled out of Afghanisatan after 20 years, Raab said no one could have anticipated such a rapid collapse of the Afghan government at the hands of Taliban forces.
“The truth is, across the world people were caught by surprise,” he told Sky News. “I haven’t spoken to an international interlocutor, including countries in the region over the last week, who hasn’t been surprised.
“We saw a very swift change in the dynamics. And of course, this has been part and parcel of the withdrawal of western troops, but it’s also been the approach of the Taliban, and of course it’s been a test for the Afghan security forces.
“All of those factors have been very fluid. But no one saw this coming. Of course we’d have taken action if we had.”
In a separate interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Raab said that given the US was committed to withdrawing its forces there was little the UK could realistically do except hope to mitigate the worst impacts of the Taliban takeover.
He said: “The critique is perfectly reasonable that we didn’t see this coming, but unless someone’s going to explain how many extra UK troops we should put in, in the absence of the US commitment, I think the right thing for us to focus on is the evacuation effort, and how we now use every lever that we’ve got at our disposal with all due realism, to try and moderate the influence and the impact of the regime that comes next.”
The foreign secretary also defended himself for having been on holiday to Cyprus, saying he had been in constant contact as the Afghan situation deteriorated, before returning. But he told Sky: “In retrospect, of course, I wouldn’t have gone on holiday.”
Raab: pace of Taliban takeover ‘caught everyone by surprise’ – video
Following chaos at Kabul airport on Sunday, in which crowds ran across the runway and at least two Afghans appeared to fall to their deaths from the undercarriage of departing planes, Raab said the situation was now more stable.
The UK was doing “everything we can” to remove both UK nationals and Afghans eligible under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, or Arap, which provides relocation for locals who worked for UK forces, for example as translators.
He said 3,300 nationals and their families had been processed to date, that there was a chance some would be left behind.
Raab said: “I think there’s always a risk of that. What I’m focused on is doing everything physically possible to get British nationals out, to get as many of those who have loyally served us out, and also to think about how we then move forward with an international strategy which can stabilise the situation for the people of Afghanistan.”
MORE NEW Raab told Today that in addition to this, ministers were working on a “bespoke” asylum scheme to help Afghan nationals resettle in the UK, modelled on one put in place for Syrians in 2014, which eventually helped 20,000 people.
He declined to give any details, saying these would come “shortly” from the home secretary, Priti Patel, and Boris Johnson. ENDS MORE NEW
The shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Kinnock said Labour would back such a plan, telling Today, “it needs to be a bold and ambitious and generous offer”.