Foreign secretary seeks ‘international coalition’ to exert moderating influence on Taliban
Blame game battles at the heart of the cabinet over Afghanistan raged on today, as foreign secretary Dominic Raab rejected defence secretary Ben Wallace’s claim that it was clear “the game was up” as early as July.
His comments came as he began a regional visit, beginning in Gulf state Qatar and expected to also include Pakistan, to build what he termed an “international coalition” to exert “maximum moderating influence” on the Taliban.
The foreign secretary said that the UK will be “pragmatic and realistic” in its approach to the Taliban and sees scope for “engagement and dialogue” with the militant group, but would not be recognising the new regime in Kabul.
Mr Raab has told MPs that the Joint Intelligence Committee assessed that Kabul was likely to hold out against the Taliban until next year, but was forced onto the back foot on Wednesday when he was confronted in a parliamentary hearing with a 22 July document from his own Foreign Office warning of a “rapid” insurgent advance which was likely to see cities falling and a humanitarian crisis develop.
Boris Johnson said that it had been “clear for many months that the situation could go very fast” and that this had formed part of the intelligence briefing received by ministers.
Visiting troops newly returned from Afghanistan in Colchester, the prime minister said there had been “suggestions” that the Afghan National Defence Force might hold on for longer, but added: “Once people in the Afghan Army felt that they were no longer going to be getting that American air cover, then I think the logic for them became really to to end their resistance and so things did go faster.”
The PM made no response when asked why in this case both he and Mr Raab had gone on holiday in the days before the fall of Kabul on 15 August.
In an interview with The Spectator, Mr Wallace said: “I remember back in July arguing that, whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing.”
He rejected attempts to blame military intelligence for the failure to foresee how swiftly the Afghan authorities would crumble, saying: “History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”
But Mr Raab insisted that he and the defence secretary “were taking the same assessment throughout until very late”.
“The central assessment had been that Kabul wouldn’t fall until after the end of August and the evacuation of allied troops, and indeed there would be a steady deterioration throughout the remaining part of the year, so we were all working to the same set of assumptions,” he told broadcasters.
The Foreign Office played down the significance of the 22 July report which wrong-footed Mr Raab during a grilling by the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
A spokesperson said it was “wrong and misleading” to suggest the Principal Risk Report was “at odds with our detailed assessments of the situation in Afghanistan or our public position throughout the crisis”.
But committee chair Tom Tugendhat said today he would have expected the report to be “front and centre” of the foreign secretary’s thinking.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a ‘gotcha’ moment’” the Conservative MP told a Policy Exchange seminar. “It was supposed to be a discussion about a document that I thought would have been front and centre. I think it demonstrates pretty clearly what was known at what point.”
Shadow security minister Conor McGinn said: “While British nationals and Afghans who helped us are fighting for their lives, the cabinet are more interested in fighting for their jobs.
“It’s embarrassing to watch and tragic for those terrified in Afghanistan, who are looking to Britain for a way out of the despair, but just see a government fighting like rats in a sack.”
Amid reports that Kabul’s airport is already reopening for domestic travel, Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said he was hopeful of “good news” within the next few days on the restoration of international flights, which could hold the key to the removal of thousands of Afghans left behind in last week’s evacuation.
Qatar is understood to have used its links with the Taliban leadership, who maintain a base in the emirate, to exert pressure for the group to co-operate with the evacuation of international forces and dependents following the fall of the Afghan capital.
Mr Raab said he felt “a responsibility” to those still waiting to leave for the UK either via the airport or by crossing the borders into neighbouring countries.
“We need to adjust to the new reality and our immediate priority is to secure the safe passage of those remaining British nationals, but also the Afghans who worked for the United Kingdom, and indeed others who may be at most risk,” said the foreign secretary.
On his first trip to the region since the fall of Kabul on 15 August, Mr Raab made clear he is hoping to forge a common front with Afghanistan’s neighbours on dealing with the Taliban and holding them to account over commitments to inclusive government, human rights and respect for women and girls.
“I think it’ll be important to build an international coalition, and our Qatari friends are clearly an influential lynchpin player in that,” he said. “We are working with our G7 presidency, our Nato membership, we secured with the French, the Germans and the other members of the Security Council a resolution which provided a good framework that all countries should be able to agree on as a way to move forward.
“Now we need to get wider buy-in from the regional countries involved.
“I think above all we need to put a grouping together that can exert maximum moderating influence on what the Taliban does next. We’ll certainly keep working with all of those partners… to make sure that we can preserve the gains that have been made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years and continue to support the Afghan people.”