British officials have warned that the ongoing evacuations from Kabul’s airport may be proceeding on borrowed time, and are urging the US to push back its Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The officials said that unless the deadline is pushed back, UK forces likely won’t be able to rescue all of the thousands of Afghans eligible for safe passage to Britain.
“We don’t have it in our gift to stay there until absolutely everyone is out,” James Heappey, a junior minister for the armed forces, admitted to reporters Friday. “The air bridge [could last] two more days, five more days, ten more days. It keeps absolutely everyone here at the Ministry of Defense awake at night, that reality that we won’t get everyone out.”
Heappey went on to say that “at the moment, the large majority are getting to us. Now of course, some will not be able to get to us.
“There are people who are in deep fear and quite rightly feel that they can’t risk it,” he added. “There are others who are much further afield in Afghanistan and will have a real challenge” to reach the airport.
The Times of London reported late Friday that the British government has been told to prepare for the last UK evacuation flight to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport on Tuesday, a week before the Aug. 31 deadline, to allow any British troops left in the country time to withdraw themselves.
“People are going to get left behind,” a senior government source told the paper. “It’s a question of how many. It could be thousands. I don’t think people have realized the extent of the risk.”
Another source suggested that up to 2,000 Afghans eligible for resettlement in the UK could be left to fend for themselves against the Taliban.
Meanwhile, problems remain with getting people on board flights leaving Afghanistan. The Telegraph reported late Friday that UK military flights leaving Kabul are only about 75 percent full due to processing issues.
The US on Friday afternoon said it had flown approximately 13,000 people out of the country since Aug. 14 and 5,700 people in the previous 24 hours. However, Biden administration officials have admitted they do not have an exact count of how many Americans and allied Afghans remain stuck in hostile territory.
The Times also reported that British paratroopers on the ground in Kabul fear US forces would pull out with “zero warning,” leaving them with no choice but to follow suit, abandoning thousands to near-certain death.
The apparent feeling of mistrust between US and UK forces appears to have been exacerbated in recent days as British special forces make runs into the Afghan capital to retrieve would-be evacuees — including American citizens — from safe houses, while American troops remain behind to secure the perimeter of the airport.
Washington Examiner commentary writer Tom Rogan said Friday that the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne had told his British counterpart to “cease operations beyond the airport perimeter” because his men were “embarrassing the United States military in the absence of similar US military operations.”
“I understand that the British officer firmly rejected the request,” Rogan wrote.
Then there are the Taliban themselves. Their fighters man checkpoints controlling access to the airport and beat anyone — including Americans — trying to make their way past.
The Islamic fundamentalist group’s spokesman, Sunil Shaheen, suggested this week that the Taliban would allow US forces to remain in Afghanistan until the 9/11 anniversary date enshrined in President Biden’s initial withdrawal announcement.
However, some UK officials don’t seem inclined to take the group at their word. As one told the Telegraph: “Eventually, the Taliban will want their airport back.”
In remarks from the White House Friday, Biden described the ongoing evacuation mission as “dangerous,” saying it “involves risks to our armed forces, and it is being conducted under difficult circumstances.”
“I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or what it will be — that it will be without risk of loss,” Biden said. “But as commander-in-chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”
However, while the State Department has repeatedly urged Americans to get to the airport as soon as possible, they have also warned that the US government cannot guarantee safe passage to them.