independent– Dominic Raab has admitted the government was surprised by the “scale and pace” of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, as the UK announced a further 200 troops would be sent to Kabul to assist with evacuation efforts.
Following a third emergency Cobra meeting on the situation in the country, the foreign secretary also raised the prospect of sanctions and holding back aid if insurgents breached human rights and allowed the region to become a “base for terror”.
“Everyone has been surprised by the scale and pace of which the Taliban have taken over in Afghanistan, and that’s a lesson we’ve all got to learn from,” Mr Raab said when questioned on the UK’s handling of the crisis.
Insisting efforts were now focused on the evacuation effort amid scenes of chaos and desperation at Kabul international airport, Mr Raab said that in the early hours of Tuesday morning a further 50 British nationals would arrive back in the UK.
Earlier, No 10 revealed 370 people, including UK citizens and Afghans provided with a visa, had arrived safely in the country, with “significant numbers” expected in the coming days – despite the uncertainty in the Afghan capital.
In an effort to assist with the evacuation, the Ministry of Defence also confirmed a further 200 troops would be sent to Afghanistan, as the US authorised the deployment of another battalion to Kabul, according to Reuters.
However, earlier on Monday, the defence secretary Ben Wallace fought back tears as he admitted in an interview that the UK may not be able to get all of the remaining nationals and Afghan allies out of the region, saying: “Some people won’t get back”.
As pressure escalated over the effort to aid refugees, Mr Raab also echoed comments from Downing Street, declining to say how many Afghan refugees the UK could take under a potential resettlement scheme.
Over the weekend, the Canadian government said it would offer sanctuary to 20,000 citizens facing persecution from the Taliban.
No 10 said on Monday evening the prime minister will “shortly announce” a new and bespoke resettlement scheme for those Afghans most in need, but did not give any further details.
Mr Raab also stressed the UK will hold the insurgents “to account for their commitment and to never allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terror, to hold a more inclusive government and to protect the most essential human rights, including respecting the rights of women.”
Quizzed on how the government would hold the insurgents to account without any presence in the country, he added: “Ultimately through working with our partners through everything from sanctions we can apply to the ODA [Overseas Development Assistance] that we will hold back pending reform and a more inclusive government.”
Earlier, at an emergency session of the UN Security Council, Britain’s representative said Afghanistan was facing a “catastrophic human rights crisis”, with evidence emerging of Taliban abuses, including harsh restrictions on women, the persecution of minorities and allegations of civilians used as human shields.
Mr Raab, who has faced intense criticism for being “missing in action” as the situation in the country deteriorated, returned from holiday on Monday, and insisted that “everyone was caught by surprise” over the advance of the Taliban.
“I think the important thing to understand is right the way through last week – I was on a flight last night to get back – I have been directly in touch with my team, directing them,” he insisted. “I’ve been engaged in all the Cobra meetings.
“The reality is the modern business of being a foreign secretary, whether you’re away on travel, or the very occasional time you get to go away on leave, I can always be in direct control of what the Foreign Office is doing,” he added.
On Monday, it also emerged Boris Johnson had left No 10 on Saturday for a holiday in the West Country, but returned to Westminster the following day to host a second Cobra meeting on developments in Afghanistan.
It is expected the prime minister will remain in No 10 until at least Wednesday when he will update MPs on efforts to evacuate British nationals and Afghans granted visas – after Mr Johnson requested the recall of Parliament.
Following a phone call with the French president Emmanuel Macron, Downing Street said the prime minister also outlined his intention to host a virtual meeting of the G7 leaders on Afghanistan “in the coming days”.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The UK team in Afghanistan is working around the clock in incredibly difficult circumstances to help British nationals and as many others as we can get to safety as soon as possible.
“At the same time, we are bringing together the international community to prevent a humanitarian crisis emerging in Afghanistan – it’s in everyone’s interest not to let Afghanistan fail.
“That means providing whatever support we can to the Afghan people who have worked so hard to make the country a better place over the last twenty years and who are now in need of our help.”