Afghans are facing a dark and dangerous future after Boris Johnson and other leaders failed to persuade the US to extend its deadline for evacuation flights, while the Taliban said citizens would no longer be allowed to go to the airport.
With the window of escape rapidly shutting, there is deep apprehension among those who fear persecution by the Talibs that they will be abandoned, trapped in the country isolated from the outside world.
It was reported last night that both Britain and the United States could withdraw even sooner than 31 August because of the need to drawdown troops — perhaps in as little as 36 hours.
Several G7 leaders – believed to include French president Emmanuel Macron and the European Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen as well as the prime minister – voiced concern that thousands will be left behind because of Joe Biden’s self-imposed 31 August deadline.
But the US president would not budge, citing the growing threat of a terror attack at Kabul airport. “The sooner we can finish the better,” he said later — though he did leave the door open for the Pentagon to “adjust the timetable for withdrawal should that become necessary.”
It leaves Mr Johnson calling foer guarantees from the Taliban of safe passage for those trying to flee after the deadline, threatening unspecified economic, diplomatic and political measures if the new rulers of Afghanistan return to harbouring terrorists and flouting the human rights of women and minority groups.
Mr Johnson’s failure to persuade the president to grant a few more days for the airlift was branded “a dark moment for the UK government and for Afghans” by Labour, while Conservative former defence minister Tobias Ellwood told The Independent it should trigger “soul-searching” over waning British influence in Washington.
Those with foreign passports will still be allowed to go for flights, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a press conference in Kabul. However, this means that Afghan passport holders with US special visas issued for the airlift will be stopped at checkpoints.
The travel restrictions for Afghan nationals were ostensibly imposed to reduce the overcrowding. Mr Mujahid asked the more than 20,000 people who had gathered in and around the airport to go home, saying “your safety is guaranteed.” He accused the Americans of trying to orchestrate a “ brain drain” of educated professionals, saying: “Don’t encourage Afghans to leave. We need their talent.”
In a clear warning to G7 nations hours before their video summit, the spokesman said the Taliban – which has so far cooperated to a degree with evacuation efforts – would take “a different stance” if foreign forces attempted to continue them beyond the end of the month.
In a Washington briefing which took place while G7 leaders were still talking, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said: “There’s been no change to the timeline of the mission, which is to have it done by the end of the month.” Mr Biden is reported to have agreed to prepare “contingency plans” for getting people out beyond the deadline if required, but no further details were given and it remains unclear whether this means the use of military force.
Mr Johnson refused to discuss whether he had tried and failed to persuade Mr Biden to extend the timeline. Instead, he said the G7 had agreed on an “roadmap for future engagement with the Taliban” on condition that the fundamentalist group meets obligations on preventing terrorism, respecting human rights and fostering an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan.
“The number one condition we’re setting as G7 is that they have got to guarantee, through 31 August and beyond, safe passage for those who want to come out,” said Mr Johnson. “Some of them will say that they don’t accept that and some, I hope, will see the sense of that because the G7 has very considerable leverage, economic, diplomatic and political.”
In a joint communique, the G7 countries – the UK, US, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan – pledged “a renewed humanitarian effort” for the people of Afghanistan and warned that the Taliban will be “held accountable” for its actions. But the statement contained no specific pledges to supply aid or resettle refugees and no proposals for sanctions against the militant group which seized power in a lightning military push 20 years after being toppled in 2001.
The only immediate announcement of new assistance came from the EU, which offered to quadruple humanitarian aid to Afghanistan from €50m to €200m.
In a joint letter to MPs and peers, foreign secretary Dominic Raab, defence secretary Ben Wallace and home secretary Priti Patel promised that the “full might of government is being brought to bear” on increasing numbers evacuated, but acknowledged: “This window of opportunity at Kabul airport for military evacuation will shortly come to a close…
“It is the sad reality that many of those who are screened and declared eligible for evacuation may not make it to the airport before our flights end.”
Describing himself as “demoralised” by the outcome of the emergency summit, Mr Ellwood – a military veteran who chairs the Commons defence committee – told The Independent: “We see that the most powerful nations in the world can’t even keep a single airport open.
“History will decide whether this is a turning point for the west’s ability to influence world affairs but at the moment this is a very dark day indeed … Terrorist groups will be buoyed by the defeat of a superpower, the migration crisis will be colossal and the humanitarian problems ahead will be very great indeed.”
He added: “I wouldn’t say it was a personal failure for the prime minister, but there is certainly some soul-searching to be done by Britain about our relationship with the US and our not being able to prevent the decision-making in the White House, which was based on appeasing voters at home.”
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “The prime minister has failed to persuade President Biden to agree to an extension to evacuation efforts and the painful reality is that people will be left behind – that’s appalling and unconscionable. With 18 months to prepare for this, we are left with a desperate scramble, with heroic soldiers and diplomats on the ground trying to move mountains while the clock keeps ticking.”
And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Boris Johnson has come out from this summit with nothing. Britain should stand tall in the world, but this prime minister falls short at every turn.
“He has failed on the global stage once more, and the consequences could not be more devastating.”
In their first press conference since seizing Kabul and the country, the Taliban pledged, among other things, that they will not seek revenge, those who wanted to leave the country could do so, and women would have equal rights under sharia law.
Since then, however, people have been arrested at home as well as at checkpoints on the way to the airport. Together with a number of killings, the ban on Afghan nationals going to the airport and an order for women to stay at home, it showed how quickly the Islamists are introducing draconian regulations.
What has unfolded has been shattering for those Afghans who had believed that the US and its allies would rescue them from Islamist repression. Benesh Allaiwal, a 28-year-old human rights activist now living in hiding, said: “I am no longer surprised that the Taliban and the American president would both harm us so much in one day. I suppose something like this was always going to happen when Mr Biden announced he was going to take away the soldiers, which was a signal for the Taliban to attack.
“The Americans and the Europeans encouraged women like me to become educated, to get a career, to express our views. These are the things which make me a target for the Taliban now.”