Afghanistan: Scramble to save last Brits trapped in Kabul as Taliban move in on capital

The UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan is still in Kabul today, despite an SAS-backed operation to evacuate British embassy staff amid a Taliban takeover of the city. 

Foreign Office chiefs say Sir Laurie Bristow remains in the Afghan capital this afternoon, as Taliban militants pour into the city in a bid to seize control. 

British troops, supported by Special Forces, are currently in the city attempting to evacuate up to 500 embassy staff. 

But when asked if Sir Laurie was among the hundreds already thought to have been rescued, a spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) said: ‘We have reduced our diplomatic presence in response to the situation on the ground, but our Ambassador remains in Kabul and UK Government staff continue to work to provide assistance to British nationals and to our Afghan staff.

‘We are doing all we can to enable remaining British nationals, who want to leave Afghanistan, to do so.’ 

It comes as Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, with support from RAF teams from around the world, to airlift British officials out of the city. 

However the Taliban’s advance has since hastened rapidly, with militants now in the capital. Fears have been raised that they could soon capture Kabul’s airport – currently the only way for civilians to get out of Afghanistan after yesterday’s capture of Jalalabad. 

According to earlier reports, it is expected that Sir Laurie will leave Kabul by Sunday evening. Meanwhile, as many as 2,000 interpreters and their families – who fear being branded as ‘traitors’ by the extremist Taliban – are in line to be rescued.

There are also 3,000 entitled personnel – British and dual passport holders – who may also need evacuation by the UK Government. These include aid workers and security officials stationed over in Afghanistan. 

However, only 450 have so applied to leave. The FCDO says it has been urging British nationals to leave the country since April.

On top of this, around 2,000 people with links to Britain could also be eligible to leave Afghanistan for the UK. 

It is understood that British officials believed they had until the end of the month to evacuate around 7,000 negligible people from Afghanistan – while US intelligence forces suggested Kabul could stand against the Taliban for three months.

But gunshots were heard outside the capital city, while Taliban militants were seen in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman today. And there are now fears that Kabul’s airport could soon be seized. 

Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, and support from RAF teams from around the world, to airlift more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul (pictured: The British embassy in Kabul)

Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, and support from RAF teams from around the world, to airlift more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul (pictured: The British embassy in Kabul)

Special Forces units are joining 600 British troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, including 150 Paratroopers, and support from RAF teams from around the world, to airlift more than 500 British Government employees out of Kabul (pictured: The British embassy in Kabul)

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. Pictured: Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan

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. Pictured: Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan

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. Pictured: Members of Joint Forces Headquarters get prepared to deploy to Afghanistan

The UK Government says it aims to get British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow (pictured) and his embassy staff out by Sunday night - amid fears the Taliban could seize Kabul airport within days

The UK Government says it aims to get British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow (pictured) and his embassy staff out by Sunday night - amid fears the Taliban could seize Kabul airport within days

The UK Government says it aims to get British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow (pictured) and his embassy staff out by Sunday night – amid fears the Taliban could seize Kabul airport within days 

The Taliban is now closing in on the capital of Kabul from all sides, now controlling territories in the north, south, east and west

Gunshots were heard outside the capital city, while Taliban militants were seen in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman today

Gunshots were heard outside the capital city, while Taliban militants were seen in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman today

Gunshots were heard outside the capital city, while Taliban militants were seen in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman today

It comes as, in a scene mirroring that of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war, a US Air Force helicopter was seen taking off from the US embassy earlier today.

The Chinook helicopter was seen taking to the skies above the city – just like in 1975 when a US Marine helicopter was seen evacuating embassy staff from Vietnamese capital.

Today, smoke was also seen rising from near to the US embassy earlier today as security staff work to burn any important documents, including CIA information, or material that could be used ‘in propaganda efforts’. The US flag is soon expected to be lowered, signalling the official closure of the embassy. 

It comes as the US steps up its evacuation of Kabul with Taliban fighters quickly moving in ‘from all sides’.  Shots were heard on the outskirts of the capital earlier today, much earlier than first anticipated, before fighters poured into the city.

US Intelligence officials had expected Kabul to hold out for three months, while UK ministers were hoping they had until the end of the month.

Leaders of the extremist group have today demanded the Afghan government surrender the city to them in a bid to avoid bloodshed – adding the chilling warning ‘we’ve not declared a ceasefire’. 

As many as 10,000 US citizens are being evacuated from the city. Around 3,000 US troops are being sent to aid the mission.  

Taliban officials today demanded foreigners who don’t leave to register their presence with Taliban administrators in the coming days. While western countries such as the US and UK have opted to evacuate staff, Russia today confirmed that it did not intend to evacuate its embassy staff in Kabul. 

A twin-rotor US Air Force Chinook was seen taking off from the US Embassy earlier today, as the evacuation efforts rapidly pick up pace 

The Chinook helicopter was seen taking to the skies above the city - just like in 1975 when a US Marine helicopter was seen evacuating embassy staff from Vietnamese capital (pictured)

The Chinook helicopter was seen taking to the skies above the city - just like in 1975 when a US Marine helicopter was seen evacuating embassy staff from Vietnamese capital (pictured)

The Chinook helicopter was seen taking to the skies above the city – just like in 1975 when a US Marine helicopter was seen evacuating embassy staff from Vietnamese capital (pictured)

The US Embassy in Kabul has been ordered to destroy sensitive materials and evacuate as Taliban fighters move in on the capital

The US Embassy in Kabul has been ordered to destroy sensitive materials and evacuate as Taliban fighters move in on the capital

The US Embassy in Kabul has been ordered to destroy sensitive materials and evacuate as Taliban fighters move in on the capital 

Anti-missile decoy flares are deployed as U.S. Black Hawk military helicopters and a dirigible balloon fly over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan

Anti-missile decoy flares are deployed as U.S. Black Hawk military helicopters and a dirigible balloon fly over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan

Anti-missile decoy flares are deployed as U.S. Black Hawk military helicopters and a dirigible balloon fly over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan

Security Engineers will  stay behind as they continue to burn, shred and pulverize 20 years worth of intelligence stored on electronics and in documents. Pictured: Smoke rises next to the US Embassy in Kabul today

Security Engineers will  stay behind as they continue to burn, shred and pulverize 20 years worth of intelligence stored on electronics and in documents. Pictured: Smoke rises next to the US Embassy in Kabul today

Security Engineers will  stay behind as they continue to burn, shred and pulverize 20 years worth of intelligence stored on electronics and in documents. Pictured: Smoke rises next to the US Embassy in Kabul today

The US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan has been the intelligence hub of the US's war on terror

The US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan has been the intelligence hub of the US's war on terror

The US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan has been the intelligence hub of the US’s war on terror

The Fall of Saigon – 1975

Pictures showing US embassy officials being evacuated from Kabul are almost the mirror image of those taken during the ‘Fall of Saigon’ in 1975.

Also known as the ‘Liberation of Saigon’ by the North Vietnamese, the event saw the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Kong capture the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon – now called Ho Chi Min city.

During the offensive, US officials were told to evacuate the city.

But because of continuing rocket fire on the nearby runways, US officials urged that any evacuation must take place by helicopter.

So began Operation Frequent Wind, officially declared by the US radio stations putting Irving Berlin’s White Christmas on repeat – the signal for US staff to begin evacuation.

The embassy evacuation managed to fly out 978 Americans and about 1,100 Vietnamese citizens.

Ambassador Graham Martin was flown out to the USS Blue Ridge, where he pleaded for helicopters to return to the embassy.

His pleas were overruled, though many locals were still rescued by sea and boats after.   

Saigon was later turned over to the Communist Party of Vietnam. 

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As the Taliban advance continues, following the decision by the US to pull its troops out, gunfire was today heard near the presidential palace in Kabul.

The militants were seen in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman hours after taking control of Jalalabad, the last major Afghan city to fall to the insurgents.

The terror group said in a statement they do not intend to take the capital ‘by force’ after entering the outskirts of the city.

An Afghan official earlier confirmed Jalalabad fell under Taliban control without a fight early Sunday morning when the governor surrendered, saying it was ‘the only way to save civilian lives.’

Its fall has also given the Taliban control of a road leading to the Pakistan city of Peshawar, one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan.

Jalalabad is close to the Pakistani border and just 80 miles from Kabul – the Afghanistan capital home to more than four million people and currently the only remaining major city still under government control.

Besides Kabul, just seven other provincial capitals out of the country’s 34 are yet to fall to the Taliban.

Concerns are mounting over how long Kabul can stave off the Taliban insurgents as they have captured the northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, the second-largest city Kandahar and third-largest city Herat all within the last 48 hours.

The Taliban are now closing in on the capital from all sides, controlling territories to the North, South, East and West and advancing to just seven miles south of the city. 

Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from Logar province, told The Associated Press that the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district on the outskirts of the capital, which was gripped by blackouts, communications outages and street fighting overnight Saturday as the country descends into chaos.

A US defense official has warned it could be only a matter of days before the insurgent fighters take control of Kabul. 

A Taliban fighter sits inside an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on Sunday

A Taliban fighter sits inside an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on Sunday

A Taliban fighter sits inside an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle along the roadside in Laghman province on Sunday 

Taliban fighters drive the vehicle through the streets of Laghman province Sunday - the same day Jalalabad fell

Taliban fighters drive the vehicle through the streets of Laghman province Sunday - the same day Jalalabad fell

Taliban fighters drive the vehicle through the streets of Laghman province Sunday – the same day Jalalabad fell 

Residents and fighters swarm an Afghan National Army vehicle on a roadside in Laghman province as the insurgents take control of major cities

Residents and fighters swarm an Afghan National Army vehicle on a roadside in Laghman province as the insurgents take control of major cities

Residents and fighters swarm an Afghan National Army vehicle on a roadside in Laghman province as the insurgents take control of major cities

Last days of the US Embassy in Kabul: Nerve center of the war on terror is being gutted of all sensitive material as staff and CIA assets

The US Embassy in Kabul – the nerve center of the war on terror – is being gutted of all its sensitive material and evacuated in 72 hours, as the Taliban coils around Afghanistan‘s capital. 

The Embassy’s demise will create an intelligence void that could plunge the US into pre-9/11 blindness, unless it can find another nearby country that will allow it rebuild its spy center.  

For the past 20 years, the US Embassy in Kabul has gathered vast amounts of information that shaped counterterrorism military actions – such as precision drone strikes – and prevented another 9/11-type attack. 

The location allowed CIA agents to meet with sources and monitor the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region.  

‘When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,’ CIA Director Bill Burns told Senators in April.  

Everyone in the Embassy – except Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service agents and top decisionmakers, including the ambassador – will be out of the country before the end of Tuesday.   

Security Engineers will also stay behind as they continue to burn, shred and pulverize 20 years worth of intelligence stored on electronics and in documents. 

Embassy or agency logos, American flags ‘or items which could be misused in propaganda efforts’ are also considered to be sensitive materials and will be destroyed. 

The military is prepared to lower the American flag flying above the Embassy – at the State Department’s order – signaling the Embassy’s official closure. 

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Today the Taliban said they aim to take the city, but say they have no plans to take Kabul ‘by force’.

Leaders of the extremist group say they don’t want a ‘single Afghan to be injured or killed’ during the hostile takeover – but warned ‘we’ve not signed a ceasefire yet’. 

Just last week, US intelligence estimates expected the city to be able to hold out for at least three months. 

A senior US official told the New York Times the Taliban have warned the US it must cease airstrikes or else its extremist fighters will move in on US buildings.

Joe Biden has vowed that any action that puts Americans at risk ‘will be met with a swift and strong US military response.’  

Meanwhile, in the UK, Boris Johnson is facing calls for a last-ditch intervention to prevent the complete collapse of Afghanistan.

The lead elements of the British force sent to evacuate the remaining UK nationals were understood to be in the capital amid fears it could fall within days or even hours. 

But amid a hurried scramble for safety, helicopters were seen landing at the US embassy to ferry away remaining personnel.

In the UK, there was deep anger among many MPs at the way – 20 years after the first international forces entered Afghanistan – the country was being abandoned to its fate.

The chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat said it was ‘the biggest single foreign policy disaster’ since Suez, while Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said it was a humiliation for the West.

Despite the decision of the Biden administration to withdraw the remaining US troops which triggered the collapse, Mr Ellwood said it was still not too late to turn the situation around.

He called for the despatch of the Royal Navy carrier strike group to the region and urged the Prime Minister to convene an emergency conference of ‘like-minded nations’ to see what could be done.

‘I plead with the Prime Minister to think again. We have an ever-shrinking window of opportunity to recognise where this country is going as a failed state,’ he told Times Radio.

‘We can turn this around but it requires political will and courage. This is our moment to step forward.

‘We could prevent this, otherwise history will judge us very, very harshly in not stepping in when we could do and allowing the state to fail.’

SAS ordered to save Our Man in Kabul: Special Forces will get UK ambassador out by Sunday night amid fears Taliban will take Kabul airport in days 

ByGlen Owenand Mark Hookhamand Abul Taher for The Mail on Sunday

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 Foreign Office has been shocked by the speed the Taliban has been able to move across Afghanistan

The Foreign Office has been shocked by the speed the Taliban has been able to move across Afghanistan

The Foreign Office has been shocked by the speed the Taliban has been able to move across Afghanistan 

The British government wants to stop a scene similar to that of the Fall of Saigon where Vietnamese evacuees were flown out on CIA funded Air America flights

The British government wants to stop a scene similar to that of the Fall of Saigon where Vietnamese evacuees were flown out on CIA funded Air America flights

The British government wants to stop a scene similar to that of the Fall of Saigon where Vietnamese evacuees were flown out on CIA funded Air America flights 

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.

The Taliban have been rapidly advancing across Afghanistan and are within days of reaching the capital Kabul

The Taliban have been rapidly advancing across Afghanistan and are within days of reaching the capital Kabul

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

Officials have been surprised by the speed the Taliban have been able to cross the country

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

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has ordered the SAS to rescue the ambassador and his team

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has ordered the SAS to rescue the ambassador and his team

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

The SAS are believed to be preparing to evacuate the British ambassador and his staff from Kabul by tomorrow evening

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

An Afghan police officer in Kabul mans a check point despite the approaching Taliban

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

Terrorist fighters have been congregating in the city of Heret, west of Kabul

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.

 

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