Boris Johnson says he “absolutely” has confidence in Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – and insisted the government is working “virtually around the clock” to help evacuate people from Afghanistan.
Speaking after a meeting of the government’s emergency COBRA committee on Friday afternoon, Mr Johnson dismissed criticism of Mr Raab’s summer holiday as Afghanistan’s capital Kabul fell to the Taliban.
The foreign secretary, who is reported to have spent time on the beach in Crete as Afghanistan was captured by the extremist group, has been accused of failing to call the country’s foreign minister as part of a bid to rescue interpreters who worked with UK forces.
The prime minister said the current situation in Kabul was “getting slightly better” and there had been a “stabilisation” at the city’s airport.
However, Sky News’ chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay on Friday described “simply horrendous” scenes as he reported from outside Kabul’s airport.
“Yesterday we were able to get out about 1,000 people, today another 1,000 people,” Mr Johnson said of the ongoing British evacuation effort.
“A lot of those are obviously UK eligible persons coming back to this country and a lot of them are people coming under the Afghanistan resettlement assistance programme, the ARAP (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy).
“Those are the people, the interpreters and others, to whom we owe debts of gratitude and honour.
“We’ll continue to work as fast as we can over the next few days.”
The prime minister said he was “not going to pretend” that the evacuation effort was “easy”, adding: “As you can imagine, the logistical challenges are formidable.”
Mr Johnson admitted the situation in Kabul was “precarious” with “crowd management issues” around the city’s airport.
But he denied that Mr Raab’s failure to make a call to the Afghan foreign minister last week had made the current evacuation effort harder.
“I can tell you that the whole of the government has been working virtually around the clock, hitting the phones, to do what we can to sort it out; to deal with a situation that has been long in gestation and to make sure that we get as many people back as possible,” Mr Johnson said.
The prime minister acknowledged that, in order to find a longer-term solution in Afghanistan, the UK might work with the Taliban “if necessary” as part of a “lasting” commitment to the country.
He also expressed his hope that the Taliban “mean what they say” in their commitments on not allowing the country to become a base for international terrorism.
“I think it’s very important that we take people at face value,” he said.
And Mr Johnson stressed, despite its fall into Taliban control, the UK had a “huge record to be proud of in Afghanistan” after its 20-year engagement in the country.
“It bears repeating that the UK Armed Forces, UK diplomats, aid workers, did help to change the lives of literally millions of people in Afghanistan, to help educate millions of women and young girls who would otherwise not have been educated, and to stop terrorism from coming to this country,” the prime minister added.
Mr Johnson said US President Joe Biden’s decision to proceed with the pull-out of American troops from Afghanistan meant “this was never going to be an easy moment”.
“We went into Afghanistan to support and to help protect the US, so when the US decides emphatically to withdraw in the way that they have, clearly we’re going to have to manage the consequences,” he said.
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Earlier on Friday, Mr Johnson welcomed to Downing Street some of the former Afghan staff who were employed by the UK in their country and who have since been resettled in Britain under the ARAP scheme.
The prime minister described the evacuation of British nationals, eligible persons and those who qualify under the ARAP scheme over the coming days as the “first phase” of the UK’s response to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The UK has also committed to taking up to 5,000 Afghan refugees in the first year of a new and separate resettlement scheme, and up to 20,000 in the longer-term.
Mr Johnson said there was an “important distinction” between the two commitments.
“Some people want to come out and so we have the ARAP scheme, we’ve got the eligible persons scheme, and we’ll be doing that over the next few days and weeks,” he added.
“But then the longer-term ambition to help people resettle from Afghanistan, that’s a longer-term thing.
“People listening to this, maybe even in Kabul or who are in Afghanistan, should understand that they don’t need to make use of, to apply for that scheme, they don’t need to do it in the next few days up until the end of August.
“They’ll be time for that. We want to make sure that we’re ready, that we have housing that people need and we’re able to accommodate them over the next years.”
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