British evacuations out of Afghanistan could not have happened without the US – and an extension depends on G7 talks with Joe Biden tomorrow, the armed forces minister has told Sky News.
James Heappey said the mission to fly out thousands of British nationals and Afghans who worked for the British over the past 20 years could not have happened without the US Air Force.
He told Sky News: “It is certainly the case that the mission in Kabul this week is fundamentally underpinned by a US presence, not just the number of troops at the airport but the role the US Air Force is playing in delivering air traffic control and all of the other airfield services.
“There is a hard reality that there would be no international airlift without the way the US is underpinning it.”
President Joe Biden has set a deadline for allowing people to flee the Taliban after they took over Afghanistan on 15 August of the end of the month.
But Boris Johnson will plead with Mr Biden for an extension to allow more people to be evacuated at a virtual G7 summit tomorrow.
Mr Biden has signalled he could be willing to bow to demands, revealing discussions were already underway and he would tell the G7: “We will see what we can do.”
Mr Heappey said the foreign secretary and defence secretary have been talking to their US counterparts about an extension but it is “a matter for the prime minister” tomorrow.
But, he said the decision is not solely up to the US president.
“A conversation with the Taliban will follow,” he added.
“The Taliban will have a choice – they can either seek to engage with the international community and show they want to be a part of the international system, want to be engaged in international diplomacy, or they can turn around and say ‘no, there’s no opportunity for an extension’.
“This is not just a discussion amongst G7 leaders tomorrow, but also with the Taliban.”
However, Taliban spokesman Dr Suhail Shaheen told Sky News 31 August is “a red line” and there will be “consequences” if Mr Biden delays the withdrawal of US troops.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told Sky News the prime minister “should be moving heaven and earth” to get an extension as he accused the UK government of being “asleep at the wheel” regarding the situation in Afghanistan.
Mr Heappey said the UK has extracted 1,821 people on eight flights from Kabul in the past 24 hours, with 6,631 evacuated in the past week.
He said that was originally “pretty much the target” but more people have come forward who are eligible to be brought to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) recently set up.
The armed forces minister said the “hard reality” was not all people eligible would be airlifted out but said there is a “second phase” where people will be able to register for ARAP at a refugee handling centre or embassies in the region.
“There were a number of people from civil society that weren’t part of ARAP, but the UK government has been trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Mr Heappey said the UK’s relationship with the US remains strong and they are working together around the world to support each other, including in Haiti, the Philippines, Subsaharan Africa and eastern Europe.
“Around the world, the US and the UK remain the closest of allies,” he said.
“Of course, when you disagree with your closest friend it hurts, it causes consternation on both sides, but nobody should think the UK and US have anything but the deepest and closest of friendships.”