Afghans who want to flee to Britain may be better off “trying to get to the border” than awaiting RAF evacuation, the defence secretary has said as British troops made last-ditch attempts to airlift at least 1,500 remaining interpreters and others who have supported the UK.
Ben Wallace, in a briefing to MPs, signalled there were few places left on British rescue flights, which have evacuated more than 10,000 people from Kabul since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan less than two weeks ago.
More than 80,000 people have been airlifted by western forces, with the US saying on Wednesday that planes were taking off almost every half hour from the capital’s airport. In 24 hours, 19,000 people were flown out on 90 planes as part of an operation that could surpass the 1975 evacuation of Saigon to become the biggest airlift in history.
It came as UK defence sources voiced growing concerns about the “high risk of a terrorist attack”, particularly a suicide bombing by the group Isis-K, an Islamic State-affiliated group. Extra security measures, including concrete barriers, have been installed around the evacuation processing centre by the airport.
In a sometimes fraught online meeting with MPs, Wallace was questioned about what Afghans who have been offered student places or fellowships in the UK should do. “If they think they can make it to a third country, that may be a better option,” he said.
Pressed by the Conservative backbencher Julian Lewis, Wallace added: “I recommend that they try and make it to the border … because it is higher profile going to the airport – that is where the Taliban will be focusing their efforts at the moment.” There was no suggestion that Afghans who have been told by western officials to travel to the airport for evacuation should alter that plan, however.
UK evacuation efforts are now concentrated on the interpreters and others who worked for the British government, and who have the right to resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap). “The number of Arap people we still have to get out is about 1,500,” Wallace said, down 500 from earlier in the day.
There is another unspecified group of “special cases” – human rights activists, judges, LGBTQ+ advocates and others placed on a list by the Foreign Office – hoping to get out, plus a small number of single-nationality Britons.
A total of 10,291 people have been evacuated by the RAF since the fall of Kabul. The US has set a departure deadline of 31 August but western forces believe they need to leave several days earlier.
Turkey, which had at one point been in talks with the Taliban about staying on in Kabul, said on Wednesday it had begun to withdraw some of its several hundred-strong force before the final deadline at the end of the month.
Wallace declined to give an exact time for the UK’s final evacuation flight amid speculation that it could take place on Thursday. Defence sources said on Tuesday night that there would be as little as 24 to 36 hours to allow the British military to pack up.
“What we don’t want to do is trigger a surge or a stampede and we’ve already seen a number of people killed,” the defence secretary told MPs. He added: “I can’t give you an exact time. It isn’t long, it is a really difficult position we’re in.”
Earlier this week the US tried to agree to extend the 31 August deadline it had negotiated with the Taliban over holding Kabul airport. But Afghanistan’s new rulers declined the request, prompting fears in the UK and elsewhere that thousands of people could remain trapped.
People unable to get out via the airport will have to try to cross the border to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. The UK hopes to set up “third country” processing centres for those with resettlement or asylum claims but it is unclear how this will work in practice.
British soldiers guarding the Baron hotel, where the UK’s diplomatic and immigration staff are based, have had to turn people away who have yet to be called for a flight or are not deemed eligible for one of the UK’s resettlement schemes.