Ministers today admitted they have no idea how many Afghan citizens the UK left behind in Afghanistan after Britain completed its withdrawal from the country.
The UK airlifted thousands of people out of Kabul but the Government has conceded that it was not able to rescue everyone who is eligible to come to Britain.
James Cleverly, the Foreign Office Minister, said this morning that it is ‘impossible’ to put a number on how many people failed to make it out after the Taliban took power.
The group has given the international community assurances that eligible people will be able to leave the country and will be granted safe passage.
But Mr Cleverly said Britain is ‘sceptical’ of those assurances and the UK will ‘judge the Taliban by their actions’ amid fears of reprisals against people who helped Western forces during the conflict.
James Cleverly, the Foreign Office Minister, said this morning that it is ‘impossible’ to put a number on how many people failed to make it out after the Taliban took power
The UK completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan at the weekend, with the US due to complete its exit by August 31
Approximately 15,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan by UK troops over the course of nearly two weeks in Operation Pitting.
A joint statement from more than 90 countries, including the UK and the US, was published last night stating that the Taliban had made promises on allowing more people to leave the country.
The statement said: ‘We have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country.’
However, many senior figures in the West fear the Taliban will fail to live up to the pledge amid concerns the number of Afghans left behind who may be eligible for resettling is actually far higher than initial Government estimates.
Asked how many people were left behind, Mr Cleverly told Sky News: ‘Well, that’s an impossible number to put a figure on. We had three methods by which, or vehicles by which, people could leave Afghanistan.
‘Obviously British nationals, we have a much better idea of how many British nationals were in Afghanistan. The vast, vast bulk of British nationals have now left Afghanistan.
‘The Arap scheme, those Afghans, interpreters and others, who had worked directly for us and with us, have their scheme.
‘But also we extended to Afghans who were at risk of reprisals and there was no set number of people in that third group.’
Mr Cleverly said the Government is ‘sceptical’ about the commitments made by the Taliban.
‘Well, we have always said, I think the Prime Minister has said very recently, that we will judge the Taliban by their actions,’ he said.
‘They have made certain commitments about not taking out reprisals on individuals, about facilitating exit.
‘Obviously we are sceptical about those commitments but we will continue working with them to an extent, based on their conduct, to try and facilitate that further evacuation and repatriation effort.’
Mr Cleverly did not deny reports that hundreds of emails sent to the Foreign Office from people trying to get out of the country had been left unopened.
He said: ‘Well, you have got to remember that when we extended our evacuation efforts to Afghan nationals we of course received a flood of requests and those were worked through and they will continue to be worked through.
‘But I know my own inbox had a huge number of emails came through, some duplicates, and of course we focused on the people who were at the airport who were being processed and who we felt that we could get out through Kabul airport whilst we still had security of Kabul airport.
‘We will of course continue to work through applications from people who have contacted us, people who are still trying to get out of Afghanistan.’
Members of the British armed forces 16 Air Assault Brigade walk to the air terminal after disembarking a Royal Air Force Voyager at RAF Brize Norton, west of London on August 29
The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan has prompted fears that the country will once again become a breeding ground for terrorism.
Asked if the UK is now less safe than it was a month ago, Mr Cleverly said: ‘Sadly we saw the attack at Kabul airport, we saw members of the American military, Afghan citizens and sadly of course British nationals killed in that attack.
‘We will work tirelessly to protect the safety of British people, both home and abroad, that is what we do.
‘Ensuring that the Taliban stick to their commitments in terms of maintaining the internal security within Afghanistan is important and of course we will have to keep a very, very close eye on what happens in Afghanistan to make sure it doesn’t descend back into a haven for terrorism which the Taliban have said they are committed to preventing and we will seek to hold them to that.’
The UK is now focusing on how to engage with the Taliban after Britain pulled its final troops and diplomatic staff out of Afghanistan on Saturday.
A series of diplomatic meetings are planned for the coming days, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expected to stress engagement must be pragmatic and based on the group’s actions.