Dominic Raab last night ordered the dramatic rescue of the British ambassador in Kabul as Taliban forces closed in on the Afghan capital.
The Foreign Secretary sanctioned the SAS-led operation to airlift ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow and his embassy staff out by tomorrow night after he was warned that Kabul airport could be seized by the militants within days.
Sir Laurie took up his posting in June, and since the start of the Taliban offensive last month, he and most of his staff have been operating from the fortress-like Hamid Karzai international airport – three miles from the centre of the capital.
The Taliban have been rapidly advancing across Afghanistan and are within days of reaching the capital Kabul
Officials have been surprised by the speed the Taliban have been able to cross the country
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has ordered the SAS to rescue the ambassador and his team
The Foreign Office has been surprised by the speed of the Taliban advance; until this weekend, diplomats were predicting the fighters would take two weeks to reach Kabul.
But by early yesterday, after a lightning offensive, the Taliban captured the city of Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province and just 43 miles from Kabul. The insurgents then continued their relentless advance, reaching the Char Asyab district just seven miles from the capital.
It means Kabul is well within range of the artillery guns seized by Taliban units after they were abandoned by the routed Afghan forces.
In a complex undertaking being directed from Britain’s Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, to begin airlifting more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul. A further 7,000 interpreters, security staff, aid workers, intelligence agents and other personnel with links to Britain could also apply for safe passage out of the increasingly unstable country in an echo of the humiliating US exit from Saigon in Vietnam in 1975.
A total collapse of the Afghan government could lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees leaving the country and seeking asylum in nations including Britain.
A ‘ring of steel’ of fortified checkpoints surround the airport in a bid to prevent car bombs, while The Mail on Sunday also understands that an air defence system called C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery and mortar) has been deployed to protect the runway from being shelled. The airport’s huge perimeter is defended by a force of about 500 Turkish troops. They are being reinforced by 3,000 American soldiers, including 500 Marines, who began arriving yesterday.
Meanwhile, US Reaper drones and heavily armed AC-130 Spectre gunships – a fearsome ground attack version of a transport aircraft – will carry out air strikes on any Taliban units approaching the airport, senior military sources say. The air cover will be co-ordinated from the Combined Air Operations Centre at Al Udeid air base in Qatar.
As panic gripped Kabul, foreign embassies began burning sensitive documents. The US embassy informed staff that ‘burn bins’ and an incinerator were available to destroy material including papers and electronic devices to ‘reduce the amount of sensitive material on the property’, according to a document seen by Reuters.
The speed of the Taliban advance has stunned the MoD. Only eight days ago, General Sir Nick Carter, head of the UK’s Armed Forces, wrote that there were ‘increasing indications that moderate Afghans are determined to fight and their armed forces are holding their own’.
The Taliban yesterday launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan defended by powerful former warlords. The insurgents also captured Sharana, the capital of Paktika province, which borders Pakistan. Pictures emerged online of the Taliban tarring men accused of theft and parading them around the streets of the newly captured city Herat, in western Afghanistan.
The images raised fears of a repetition of the human rights abuses committed by the fanatics in the 1990s. They included the beating of women for walking on the street without a male chaperone.
The SAS are believed to be preparing to evacuate the British ambassador and his staff from Kabul by tomorrow evening
An Afghan police officer in Kabul mans a check point despite the approaching Taliban
Terrorist fighters have been congregating in the city of Heret, west of Kabul
It remains unclear how many Afghan interpreters and others who helped the British will be rescued from the country. Canada has said it will take in up to 20,000 Afghan refugees, including prominent women and government workers facing threats from the Taliban.
Johnny Mercer, a former Defence Minister who served three tours in Afghanistan before becoming an MP, said he was talking to former interpreters who were ‘petrified’ of Taliban reprisals.
‘Obviously the Taliban haven’t taken Kabul but their people are everywhere. They are starting to go door to door in Kabul. I dread to think what has happened to the ones in Lashkar Gah and Nad-e-Ali [areas of Helmand province that have already fallen to the Taliban]. We need to get a move on.’
Meanwhile, Lord Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, yesterday warned of a ‘tragedy in the making’ and urged the Government to consider launching a humanitarian aid operation to alleviate the refugee crisis in Kabul.
He said: ‘Let’s show the Afghan government we are not completely abandoning them and that we still stand side by side with them. It is quite possible to do that.’
Labour leader Keir Starmer also heaped pressure on Boris Johnson, declaring ‘we cannot just walk away’ from the war-torn country.
‘We have obligations to Afghanistan, we made promises to Afghanistan, and we cannot just walk away and let this turn into a humanitarian crisis, and probably a refugee crisis as well,’ he added.
‘There is a real risk now that international terrorism will take hold again in Afghanistan.’
Speculation is mounting that Afghanistan’s beleaguered President Ashraf Ghani could resign, heralding the collapse of the government. In a vague television address yesterday – his first public appearance in days – he said he was ‘holding consultations with local leaders and international partners’.
There were only seven commercial international flights out of Kabul yesterday. Those without tickets have been urged not to go to the airport, but that has not stopped them from turning up and desperately searching for flights.
Home Office staff are set to run a processing centre from a hangar at the airport which will check the passports and luggage of those due to be flown out, using biometric equipment to ensure that Taliban sympathisers do not try to infiltrate the evacuees.
Jarring words that will haunt UK’s fleeing ambassador
Sir Laurie Bristow’s tenure as Britain’s top diplomat in Afghanistan may also be one of the shortest for a UK ambassador to the war-torn country.
The career diplomat touched down in Kabul in the middle of June, less than a month before the Taliban advance across large parts of Afghanistan began.
And when Sir Laurie presented his credentials to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, he tweeted a message about Britain’s engagement in the country that now sounds rather incongruous.
‘The UK’s commitment to Afghanistan remains as strong as ever,’ he said.
Sir Laurie Bristow, pictured, who was previously the British Ambassador to Moscow, arrived in Afghanistan in June to stress that the UK was committed to the future of the country
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, pictured, met Sir Laurie after the diplomat arrived in Afghanistan in June
‘We support an inclusive peace process, we are partners in countering terrorism and we provide substantial development and humanitarian support.
‘It’s a privilege to be here at such a pivotal time.’
But as he flees Kabul, the message appears to jar with reality.
The country has been his toughest task yet in a Foreign Office career that began in 1990, after the grammar school boy from Colchester left Trinity College, Cambridge, with a PhD on the poet Ezra Pound.
Before Kabul, Sir Laurie had a brief stint as the British ambassador to the COP26 conference. Previously, he was Our Man in Moscow, at a time when the relationship between Britain and Russia was difficult because of the Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.
He even appeared on Moscow TV in February 2019, trying to scotch conspiracy theories in the country that the Skripals were dead. He told the Russian public that the pair were alive, but did not want any consular assistance from the Russian embassy in London.
Sir Laurie also served as ambassador in Azerbaijan and Turkey.